Section: Arts

Review: Titus disturbed you? Good, that’s the whole point

Review: Titus disturbed you? Good, that’s the whole point

Keener’s Titus Andronicus was visually audacious and theatrically challenging. | COURTESY OF NICK RUSSELL

Titus Andronicus is widely considered to be Shakespeare’s worst play. For centuries, critics have lambasted its gratuitous violence, uneven pacing and repetitive language. In fact, Titus is so jarringly different from the rest of Shakespeare’s oeuvre that many scholars have argued that he didn’t write it. But the play has had something of a resurgence in recent years, and many people find its exploration of violence and political turmoil both relevant and resonant. One such individual is Isabel Keener ’24. With the help of The Crow’s Nest, she set out on the ambitious journey of adapting Titus Andronicus for the horror and delight of a Kenyon audience.

The resulting show, staged in the Harlene Marley Theater on Thursday and Friday, was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It was messy and intense and often hard to watch. It was tonally dissonant. It was slapstick. It was absurd. Keener’s Titus was a show you either loved or hated, and judging by the YikYaks people posted about it, a lot of Kenyon students were in the “hate” camp. Well, I’m writing the review, and I loved it.

The plot of Titus is basically one act of violence after another, each scene more intense than the last. We open with the titular Titus, a Roman general, returning victorious from battle. He brings back prisoners of war, including Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her three sons and Aaron, a Moor in her court. Titus sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son to the gods, incurring her wrath.

Titus is then asked to choose which of the late Roman emperor’s two sons should take the throne (there are a lot of sons in this play). Titus selects the elder son, Saturninus, who offers to marry Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, in return for the favor. However, Lavinia is really in love with the younger son, Bassianus, and he claims her for his own. Saturninus decides to marry Tamora instead.

Tamora pretends to love her husband, but she harbors two secret desires. The first is to get revenge on Titus, and the second is to be with her secret lover, the Moor Aaron. She and Aaron conspire together, and they convince her two living sons to kill Bassianus and rape Lavinia. Tamora frames two of Titus’ sons (see what I meant about sons?) for the murder, and Saturninus declares that they will be executed. Meanwhile, Titus finds Lavinia with her hands and tongue cut off. She writes the names of her attackers in sand, and Titus swears vengeance against Aaron and Tamora.

The violence continues to escalate (Aaron cuts off Titus’ hand, Titus bakes Tamora’s sons into a pie and feeds them to her, so on and so forth), culminating in a fight scene where almost everyone dies. But that’s all superfluous; Keener’s Titus is more concerned with themes than it is with plot.

Keener’s primary goal in adapting the play for a modern audience was to comment on the way that we consume violence in media. “It’s just so bizarre to me that we receive on entertainment apps horrific, materially terrifying videos and then, like, a meme,” she said in an interview with the Collegian. “What effect does that have on our psyche?” To interrogate this question, Keener made sure the structure of Titus was as tonally dissonant as possible. For instance, the scene where Tamora’s sons declare their intention to rape Lavinia is immediately followed by a vaudeville-inspired dance number. As a viewer, I felt viscerally uncomfortable. In the moment, I thought Keener’s choice was a misstep, something thoughtless and insensitive. However, now that I’ve had time to reflect on my personal reaction and spoken to Keener, I’ve changed my tune. She accomplished exactly what she set out to do, and she did a damn good job at it.

Another of Keener’s main concerns was properly representing the characters of Lavinia and Aaron. Lavinia’s depiction has always been the most controversial element of the play; the narrative treats her graphic rape and mutilation as an insult to her father rather than as her own trauma. Keener worked closely with Lavinia’s actress, Dawsen Mercer ’26, to ensure that the character was given the time and attention she deserves. “This production more or less changed my life,” Mercer wrote in an email to the Collegian. “As someone who has dealt with assault myself, I set out to play her role as something of a healing process for my own past.” To ensure that the moment wasn’t treated as spectacle, Lavinia’s rape does not occur on stage. Additionally, Keener spoke to the audience before the play began and informed us of a cue that would occur beforehand (Tamora screaming) so that we could leave the room if we needed to.

Aaron is also a hard character to get right. As an African Moor, he is one of the only explicitly racialized characters Shakespeare ever wrote. Historical depictions of Aaron have often played up his villainy and conflated it with his Blackness; Keener was very aware of this unfortunate precedent and wanted to take a different approach. Aaron is undoubtedly villainous in some regards, but his actions are comparatively tame within the context of the play. “He actually has a lot of popularity as the most empathetic [character] in this play where it seems like everyone is just evil,” Keener told me.

In line with this more sympathetic interpretation, Keener cut a lot of lines from the play that featured Aaron actively conspiring in the plot to rape Lavinia. “We decided to keep [them] originally because we didn’t want to moralize Aaron and take away his complex ethos,” Keener explained, “but also, especially on this campus and with The Crow’s Nest, a predominantly white organization, that’s a very volatile choice… because it perpetuates stereotypes.”

The way that Keener’s Titus reimagines Lavinia and Aaron is just one example of her intentional creative vision. However, what stood out to many viewers most, including myself, was the play’s visuals. The actors all wore lingerie and gaudy mime makeup, their faces painted a brilliant white. Fake blood flowed freely and often. And the pièce de résistance: the giant vulva. I won’t even try to describe it (see top center). Keener drew heavily upon the film and theater of the 1920s and 1930s for visual and sonic inspiration. “I think what I respect about it is it’s highly representational, and you know that you’re watching theater,” she said.

In line with this structured and allusive approach, Keener and the rest of the cast did copious amounts of research. She described how, during early rehearsals, she gave presentations on different philosophers, theories and schools of thought: “I was talking about Julia Kristeva, the abject and her theory of horror and laughter And then I was talking about Mikhail Bakhtin and Rabelais and the idea of humor and material grotesqueness.”

Keener then elaborated on how she worked these theoretical elements into the final product and the challenge of deciding what to include and what to omit: “I’d like to say all the meaning was controlled and tightly handled, but part of the reason why we had to put in so much thought was so that we could free some things up to the subconscious.”

During our conversation, I was surprised to learn that Titus was Keener’s directorial debut. Furthermore, it was also many of the actors’ first times performing as well. Both Julián Clivillés ’25, who played Titus, and Charlie Atkins ’25, who played Saturninus, had no prior experience. Like Keener, though, they didn’t let this hold them back. “I knew it would be difficult to enter Titus’ mind, but I researched the character and other performances extensively,” Clivillés wrote in an email to the Collegian. “Looking back, I feel pretty accomplished. It was a uniquely rewarding experience, and I loved delving into the world of theater.”

Also writing in an email to the Collegian, Atkins commented on what he hopes the audience took away from the show. “Our performance of Titus was intended to be watched, not passively, as an unreflective act of consumption, but actively, intensively and thus intently, in order to provoke uncomfortable reflection,” he said. “We did not seek to shock simply to shock; we specifically aimed to shock in order to induce self-reflection on the part of the viewers, which is uncommon.”

Everyone’s emotional reactions and opinions are different, and I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I’m going on record today to say I think Keener’s Titus worked. The entire production team, from Keener to the actors to the crew, created something beautiful and powerful and challenging. “The main thing we were trying to do [was] prepare the audience, prepare their voyeuristic and even sadistic gaze, to then confound it,” Keener said. Well, I saw the gobsmacked expressions of my fellow audience members and I read the outraged YikYaks, and I can say with certainty that Titus did just all that and more.Kenyon needs more art like this, work that actively and intentionally challenges its insulated, privileged audience. Really, I only have one critique: Keener told me that the production was originally called Tightey Whitey Titus, and I wish she’d kept that name.

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