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Titus Redux Gushes Over Shakespeare's Original

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Jack Stehlin and John F. Bocca, photo: Ed Krieger
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Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, doesn’t get a lot of respect. Mainly because it’s such a gory mess, an onslaught of war crimes, dismemberment, rape, cannibalism, infanticide, and…the like. In Titus Redux, a new adaptation of the Elizabethan off-classic which opened Sunday night, two collaborating L.A. theater companies harness the bloody raw material of the original and shift its milieu from the ancient Romans’ war against the Goths to the contemporary conflict in Afghanistan. Interspersing new dialogue with the Shakespearean text, moving the story forward in between live scenes with silent video vignettes featuring the characters in real-world settings, and enacting some of the play’s most violent moments in vivid choreography, director/adaptor John Farmanesh-Bocca’s reimagination of Titus is intermittently wacky and intermittently powerful.

Jack Stehlin stars as Titus, a US Army general returning home after his final tour of combat duty. At the family dinner table, his wife Tamora (Brenda Strong) curses him for allowing their son to die in the war and soon thereafter enlists the loyalties of the couple’s two other sons (Dash Pepin and Vincent Cardinale) for an intra-family battle against Titus and his beloved daughter Lavinia (Margeaux J. London). Also allied with Tamora against Titus is the family’s deceptively friendly neighbor Aaron (Farmanesh-Bocca). The carnage takes off from there.

The plot of Titus Redux is considerably simplified from Shakespeare’s original play, and the relationships between the characters are ingeniously rearranged (Tamora and her sons, for example, are not Titus’s and Lavinia’s own family in Titus Andronicus). The reconfigured story line isn’t always delineated with perfect clarity, but that ends up a little beside the point. Titus Redux is more enjoyable as a series of scenes, each with its own distinctively kinetic style, connected by a group of recurring characters than as a unified dramatic adaptation.

To be sure, much of the violence throughout the show is distinctively R-rated. (Titus’s missing right hand in the photo above? It’s not missing when the play starts.) But, hey, that’s Shakespeare. The best of the fight scenes are truly exciting to watch, and Titus’s progressive descent into madness is downright chilling in Stehlin’s Lear-like portrayal of the poor sap. The evening’s weak points are its gratuitous stabs at comic relief, which, it must be said, are sometimes eyeball-rollingly corny. But these are thankfully overwhelmed by the dizzying theatricality of almost everything else.

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Farmanesh-Bocca overlays much of the action with an eclectically effective soundtrack, ranging from Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa to CSNY’s “Our House.” The occasionally startling sound and lighting effects of design team John Rousseau, Adam Phelan, and Jason Collins add fireworks to the evening.

Titus Redux
The Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
Nightly through September 12, except September 6.
Tickets $22.50 on goldstar.com, $21.50 on lastage.org, $39 and $28 through the Circus Theatricals web site.