Titus Andronicus, Dir. Paata Tsikurishvili for Synetic Theater, Arlington, VA, USA, May 2018Tragedy

  • Justin Hopkins
Titus Andronicus; directed by Paata Tsikurishvili for Synetic Theater, Arlington, Virginia, USA. May 19, 2018.
Reviewed by Justin B. Hopkins, Franklin and Marshall College.

Irina Kavsadze as Lavinia and Ensemble. Photographer: Johnny Shryock

Titus Andronicus is Synetic Theater’s thirteenth entry in its wordless Shakespeare series. (Note: For convenience, I will refer to the play as Shakespeare’s, though I acknowledge the consensus that it was a collaboration with George Peele.) The company, of Georgian origin and led by husband and wife Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili, has built a strong reputation for interpreting the classics through a fusion of movement, design, and sound—but no spoken text.

Each time I attend a Synetic production, I wonder how the company will handle elements of the plot that may not make easy sense to audience members not already familiar with the story. With Romeo and Juliet, or Hamlet, that may not be much of an issue, but Titus is another matter. While not the most complex plot, it is still not easy to follow, and its intense violence has long rendered it unpopular and hence unfamiliar to many.

So I was surprised and pleased to discover that even sticking to Synetic’s average production time of 90 minutes, rather than trimming much, director Paata Tsikurishvili and adaptor Emily Whitworth had actually added to the narrative. The production began with an vivid depiction of Titus’ campaign against the Goths. He and his Roman warriors vigorously executed Irina Tsikurishvili’s martial choreography, slamming their spears on the stage and thrusting the shafts into the air—all while Tamora and her sons appeared suddenly from the shadows to slice at the soldiers before slinking back into the dark.

At the height of the conflict, Tamora captured a soldier—one of Titus’ sons, I suspected—and cut his throat while the general looked on, unable to intervene. This killing established an intriguing foundation for the feud between Titus and Tamora. When Titus later initiated, and personally executed, the sacrifice of Alarbus, it was thus plainly not an act of obligatory and political piety, however irreligious, but of conscious and cruel revenge. It was also harder, for me at least, to sympathize with Tamora’s pleas for mercy, not because they were silent, but because I had already witnessed her act of violence. On the other hand, you could see even that act as responsive to the Roman intrusion, defensive rather than aggressive. To me, it seemed both, simultaneously empowering and damning—Tamora’s character was stronger, but also more culpable than in Shakespeare’s script.

Between these early killings was the campaign for empery between Bassianus and Saturninus. Contrasting with the brutal and smooth motions of the battle, Bassianus and Saturninus’s confrontation was comically jerky, a slapsticky back and forth of physicalized bickering, grabbing at the crown while Marcia Andronicus and the eerily masked Senators looked on in apparent disapproval. (While Tori Bertoicci’s performance as Marcia was solid, the change of character from Marcus confused me about whether or not she was Titus’ spouse or sibling. Only consulting the family tree printed in the program confirmed the latter.) Dan Istrate invested Saturninus with an especially erratic energy and odd posturing, marked with a repeated gesture of hunching his shoulders and stretching out his arms like a bird of prey, or carrion. This Saturninus showed no interest in Lavinia, but he took great pleasure in taunting Tamora, taking her severe tiara and shoving it up his leg like a bizarre garter. When the captive queen sprung at him, clutching at his throat, he waved away the guards and instead cut her bonds, offering his hand with never a glance at Titus’ daughter.

The elimination of this plotline may have lightened the weight of the resentment motivating the ensuing narrative, but Lavinia’s part in the play remained adequately heavy. As in the original text, her rape happened offstage, but Demetrius and Chiron cut off her hands and tongue in full view. No liquid blood was needed to provoke gasps and—at least my own—gorge rising.

Later, Lavinia received more attention in a strange sequence that I might have called a soliloquy, except that it was performed with a half a dozen of the ensemble, dressed all in black but with bright red gloves. The scene’s placement, just after the loss of Titus’ hand, suggested it took the place of the fly killing scene (3.2), as did the jumpy, twitchy motions of the six surrounding her, striking bizarre, twisted poses. But this was certainly not a literal translation, since no other Andronicus was present. Instead, just Lavinia’s face and body evoked the agony she must feel, and Irina Kavsadze’s performance here, as throughout, was simply devastating.

The same could be said of any of the performances. Worth noting, Philip Fletcher’s lithe Titus was, perhaps, younger than is typical, and given the additions to his character early on, his mental and emotional collapse was a little less surprising, if not less painful to witness. After Lavinia’s expression of psychological torment, Titus followed suit, stripping his cape, cap, and uniform and turning a shoulder shield into a mask with which he communed in silent but no less animated anguish. Here and elsewhere, Fletcher aptly captured the morbid humor that infuses this play and can balance its otherwise unrelenting horror. For another example, as he was setting the final, fatal table, Titus dropped a fork. Reaching for it with his stump, he remembered his dis-membering and recoiled, shaking his head ruefully before picking up the utensil with his remaining hand and spitting on it, grinning with grim glee.

The only aspect of the production about which I was ambivalent was Aaron. While Audrey Tchoukoua’s Moor was entirely compelling in his initial handling of the plot to frame the Andronici, I felt conflicted about the latter half of his character arc. In one of the production’s most poignant images, Tamora gave birth perched on a pillar center-stage with her back to the audience, writhing and arching her back, and pulling a dark scarf from between her legs. Appalled at the cloth’s color, she shoved it to her grown sons, along with a dagger. Surprisingly, Chiron and Demetrius hesitated to slaughter the infant, and when Aaron entered, they hid the baby and the blade behind their backs, smiling and waving nervously, to general amusement. Aaron soon relieved them of their burden and started a startlingly athletic chase across the tall pillars, climbing and jumping and dodging. A single misstep put the infant back in the brothers’ possession, but Chiron and Demetrius’ weapons instead fell on Aaron’s back as he leapt desperately between them, saving his offspring.

The absence of the Moor’s murder of the nurse, and his self-sacrificial wound made him less repugnant than in the text, and when he was later captured by Lucius, the young Andronicus did not bind or threaten the prisoner. Of course, there were no horrible words on either side—none of the Roman’s racism or the Moor’s unrepentant villainy. instead Lucius gently exchanged the baby for a blade, with which Aaron, slinking sadly off, committed a quick suicide—arguably an easier death than he suffers in the play, and a bit abrupt. In his program note, director Paata emphasized the text’s exploration of “the lengths a parent will go to protect their family,” and the adjustments to all three parents’ (Titus, Tamora, Aaron) characters certainly reflected that. I think the only reason I cared a little less for the alteration to Aaron’s arc is that it seemed somewhat rushed, but even so it was a refreshingly complex perspective, as was the overall experience. I look forward with anticipation to Synetic’s continued, exhilarating progress through the canon.


Company website: https://synetictheater.org/

Recorded summary: https://soundcloud.com/justin-hopkins-42444021/untitled


The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
Reviewing Shakespeare is produced by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the University of Warwick to provide a searchable archive of independent reviews of worldwide Shakespearian performance.

Author: Justin Hopkins

Justin B. Hopkins teaches and helps run the Writing Center at Franklin and Marshall College. He holds an MA in International Performance Research and a PhD in Composition. Justin has published scholarship in a variety of disciplines, but reviewing Shakespeare is his favorite form of writing.