Los Angeles Theater Review: ANDRONICUS (Coeurage Theatre Company in Silver Lake)

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by Jason Rohrer on July 14, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


When Kenneth Clark asked of William Shakespeare, “who else has felt so strongly the absolute meaninglessness of life,” he illustrated the point with this speech of Macbeth’s:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle;
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot; full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Ted Barton, TJ Marchbank.To dismiss the human condition as so much wasted time in a single soliloquy, that is the one.  But if one wanted to use an entire script to evidence Shakespeare’s pessimism, the hideous Titus Andronicus would serve as well as any: an honorable Roman general refuses the imperial throne only to have his family ravaged by the emperor appointed in his stead.  His sons are killed, his daughter raped and mutilated; he bakes his enemies’ children into pies.  In an attempt to restore order to a chaotic universe, he repeatedly kills his own children.  In this early effort Shakespeare toys with characters and motifs better exploited in greater works: Aaron the Moor is a first draft of villains like Iago and Richard III; Titus himself is echoed in the old-man-making-bad-choices-that-drive-him-mad elements of King Lear.  With the possible exception of Hamlet, Titus Andronicus offers the bleakest of Elizabethan commentaries.  It’s also a play rent by fatal flaws of structure, logic, and proportion: more a freakshow than a play, it piles horror on horror until the audience is numbed (far too early); its protagonist behaves with an inconsistency very like abandon, at the playwright’s convenience, and most of the other characters serve as predictable props of one dimension.  Its over-the-top abattoir stink moved Harold Bloom to say that it was a play best directed by Mel Brooks.

Ted Barton, TJ Marchbank, Katie Pelensky, Gabriel Di Chiara, Greg Steinbrecher, Paul Romero, Brian Abraham.Now Jeremy Lelliott has directed his own adaptation, Andronicus, playing at the Lyric-Hyperion.  His cuts do not harm the play; a play this bad is hard to hurt, and Lelliott streamlines the thing such that it fairly splatters by.  Most of its actors are in the same play, no mean feat in a Shakespeare production in Los Angeles.  Lelliott understands and makes clear pretty much all that may be found in the text to disgust and to amuse.  Still, the exercise will leave some wondering what all this noise is in aid of.

Doug Harvey, Mark Jacobson.Ted Barton is always very good, and he’s excellent as Titus.  He performs with controlled passion, sustaining a simmering, pop-eyed rage such that for long stretches I sat open-mouthed, rushed along on his energy.  Anthony Mark Barrow’s sinewy snake of an Aaron enjoys the flash part of the piece (“Villain, thou hast undone our mother!” “Villain, I have done thy mother.”), and if his diction could have been clearer in early scenes opening night, that problem went away to reveal a characterization of immediacy and integrity.  Barton and Barrow both respect iambic pentameter and use it to help them act more effectively; would that everyone in this production did, or no one.  As it is, the show rolls to and fro among good actors who choose, or choose not, or are unable, to employ the traditional cadence.

Christopher Salazar, Rebekah Tripp, Zach Kanner, John McKetta.As Tamora, Rebekah Tripp is a model of credible, well-metered abomination.  Katie Pelensky too takes cues from the language to elicit pathos as the fabulously unfortunate Lavinia (that is, until Lavinia’s tongue is cut out; after that the actor shines even brighter, her eyes beacons of intention); as her malefactor Chiron, though, Zach Kanner uses the words as he will, abandoning verse while still giving a thrilling characterization.  It is the director’s job to get these folks on the same page; as it is, these discrepancies took me out of the show time and again.  As the wicked emperor, Mark Jacobson provides the most extreme example: he brings a lot of personality but robs himself of the opportunity to root his character in the show’s reality.  His modern mannerisms make him look miscast, although it’s clear he could do this part very well if properly restrained.  Chewing the language with less idiosyncrasy would help.  He would trade a short-money sit-com laugh for a more lasting and elemental value.  In L.A. it’s not always a good idea to trust your writer, but even in his weakest pieces, Shakespeare writes dialogue that is a friend to the actor.

Brian Abraham, Ted Barton, Katie Pelensky.The Lyric-Hyperion is a cramped little space, and Lelliott packs it with bodies and action that threaten to overspill the playing area.  This is a good thing in a highly emotional show.  Not much about this evening feels contained, which is not always for the best.  I have to agree with Bloom, in that a show this manic requires a remove of irony in any presentation for a modern audience.  Lelliott’s earnest interpretation has a fine continuity of theme.  It could use a similar consistency of mood, or a greater investment in the occasional departures from tone.  But ultimately it’s an exciting and worthwhile production.  If opening night had a few swords falling nervously from scabbards, and even if a prop representing an amputated left hand looked a lot like the right hand retained by the character, maladroit is never the word for a Coeurage show.

Anthony Mark Barrow (seated), Nardeep Khurmi, Kaitlyn Gault, Christopher Salazar, Zach Kanner.

photos by Robert Campbell

Coeurage Theatre Company
Lyric-Hyperion Theatre and Café
2106 Hyperion Avenue in Silver Lake
scheduled to end on August 17, 2014
EXTENDED to August 31, 2014
for Pay What You Want tickets, call 323.944.2165
or visit www.coeurage.org/tickets

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