'Titus Andronicus' — darkening Shakespeare's dark fable
If you Google "Titus Andronicus," the first two hits are websites devoted to a New Jersey rock band that Rolling Stone magazine picked as one of the "hottest new bands of 2010."
This speaks to the low esteem in which the band's namesake, a gore-soaked play that was William Shakespeare's first go at writing a tragedy, is commonly held.
In the last 25 years, the Los Angeles Times database mentions just seven Southern California productions of the original or an adaptation, including "Titus the Clownicus," a G-rated take that the Actors' Gang mounted three years ago as a show for kids. Of those seven, all but one, the Old Globe's 2006 go at "Titus," were done in houses with no more than 99 seats. The tempo for "Titus" has picked up just slightly since the Julie Taymor film version of 2000, starring Anthony Hopkins as the Roman general and Jessica Lange as his nemesis, Tamora, a captive Goth who ascends to the throne as empress of Rome.
Now comes "Titus Redux," which may be the highest-profile attempt ever staged in Los Angeles. It opens Sunday as a rental production at the 315-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
Three cogs in the show — director-adaptor-choreographer-actor John Farmanesh-Bocca; Jack Stehlin, who plays Titus Andronicus; and Brenda Strong, who is Tamora — all say that informing their work is a familial connection to war's harsh realities.
Farmanesh-Bocca's father was a general in the shah of Iran's air force when the regime fell in 1979; the son says his father likely would have been killed by the Islamic revolution if he hadn't been hospitalized at an Air Force base in San Antonio at the time. More recently, Farmanesh-Bocca says, his older brother, a doctor for the U.S. military, has spent time in Iraq. Stehlin and Strong are stage-steeped actors who've recently enjoyed high-profile television successes: Stehlin as Roy Till, a fiery federal narcotics agent on "Weeds," and Strong as Mary Alice, the suicide who narrates "Desperate Housewives" from beyond the grave and who appears in occasional flashbacks.
Stehlin says his portrayal is informed by an uncle who served five tours of duty in the Vietnam War. "I know the impact it had," he says. Strong does too: Tom Henri, her husband of 24 years, saw heavy action as a Marine in Vietnam before finding a calling as a yoga teacher. "He's done a tremendous amount of healing," Strong said. "But a lot of people don't have the training to reprogram themselves."
And this "Titus," told in dance, music and video as well as through Shakespeare's dialogue and some strategic amendments, aims to show the worst of it.
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— Mike Boehm
Photo: Director John Farmanesh-Bocca and actor Brenda Strong rehearsing. Photo credit: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times