March 13 2013 12:00 AM

Violent Shakespearean drama paralyzes and illuminates

Monday, Dec. 10 — Plopped in the middle of the holiday heartstring-plucking season, Lansing Community College’s production of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” reminds us that outside the comfort zone of our easy denials, there are still wars going on, innocent people dying and children with not a single parent to wish them a merry Christmas, let alone buy them a cheap toy.

Paige Dunckel directs this rendition of the Bard’s most violent play with a strong hand, framing it with an opening video-graphic collage of black-and-white photographs that remind us of the long history of the world’s peoples resolving conflicts via combat, weapons, rapes and deaths.

The audience is instantly sobered and silenced before a single word has even been spoken. By the end of the play, we find ourselves overwhelmed with horror, watching helplessly as heads are decapitated, hands are cut off, tongues ripped out, throats slit.

Dunckel’s ovalar octagon of a set is defined by three brass bowls of blood, triangulating a black open space, with a pool of water suggested in stark white contrast. Deaths come quickly, as actors dip their hands in the blood, touch their victim’s hands and throats and we watch them instantly die.
This abstract representation of the process of dying, accompanied by screams and then immediate silence, stiffens the audience into a paralysis of emotional numbness.

There are powerful individual performances in this play, led by Meghan Malusek, a woman in the title role, which transforms Titus Andronicus into a mind-bending and emotionally jarring Titus Androgynous, adding a nuanced, confusing sensibility to the unfolding story.

Lavinia, Titus’ daughter is played by Marissa Alago. The scene in which she is eviscerated and raped has been painstakingly and brilliantly choreographed by Roberta Otten, and is equally painful to watch.

Titus’ son, Lucius, is also portrayed by a woman, Morgan Winston, who is no-nonsense, intense, deliberate and determined. DeVaughn Staley as Tamora, queen of the Goths, brings a fully developed Shakespearean sense of drama to her role. Among the men, Zack Burton as the young son of Lucius, tears at one’s heart as he sobs and screams.

As is always true of students anywhere, LCC’s cadre of young cast members, still learning the peculiar cadence and tempo of Shakespeare’s ancient English, occasionally struggle with the tongue-twisting circumlocutions of the language.

Solid blocking of the actors on stage, however, with formal, stylized, ritualized movements, overcomes much of the verbal awkwardness, and as a consequence, the deeper meaning of this play — that war is futile, that peaceful resolution of conflict is a better alternative — comes through clearly.

How very appropriate for that one month of the year that we embrace the idea of peace on earth, goodwill to all.