A lazy night of Shakespearean mayhem in New York’s Riverside Park.
Titus by William Shakespeare. Directed by Nicholas Martin-Smith. Staged by the Hudson Warehouse Theater Company at the North Patio of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, in Riverside Park W. 89th St. and Riverside Drive, New York, New York, through August 23.
By Paul Dervis
Shakespeare in the Park is a New York tradition that is certainly as old as I am. On a warm summer’s night, with a breeze blowing round and about the audience, this is one of the few ‘must see’ options in an otherwise down time for theater in Manhattan. And you can’t beat the ‘pass the hat’ cost of admission. The big Bard production, of course, is staged by the Public Theatre in Central Park.
Its little cousin is produced by the Hudson Warehouse Theatre Company and presented in the intimate surroundings of Riverside Park with the Hudson River serving as a picturesque backdrop. Being a diminutive theatrical relative means that a risk or two can be taken — this time around HWTC is tackling one of Shakespeare’s least produced and goriest offerings, Titus Andronicus.
Thought to be Shakespeare’s earliest ‘tragedy,’ one can argue it makes Richard III seem like a relatively pleasant walk through the park.
Set in the time of the Roman Empire, the play begins at the death of the last Emperor and moves onto to focus on the subsequent power struggle for his successor. One of the candidates: Titus Andronicus, the embattled General who just completed a victorious ten year campaign against the Goths and their bloodthirsty Queen, Tamora. But he feels unworthy of the crown and throws his support behind the eventual successor, Saturninus, who shows his appreciation by marrying, of all people, Tamora! All the while, the General’s daughter, Lavinia, is being scapegoated by those who want to exact a pound of flesh from Titus.
With the Queen and her sons in tow, the somewhat unhinged Titus demands that his revenge be served boiling hot. He condemns Tamora’s eldest to death in order to avenge his own boys’ demise during the bloody war. This killing sets off a chain reaction of bloodletting that takes our author to the slaughterhouse and back in what is probably his most violent script. Possibly his most convoluted, as well.
And it’s a family affair. Titus, accused of ignoring Roman Law by his surviving son, slays the lad. What follows is an over-the-top display of rape, dismemberment, madness, and death. So many hands are cut off, so many bodies lay motionless on the ground, that it becomes visually overwhelming. It becomes difficult to keep score. The big dramatic question is reduced to “who will be the last man standing?”
All this cutting and slashing takes place in the green and pleasant surroundings of Riverside Park. It’s enough to make you lose your appetite and kick your picnic basket to the curb.
The Hudson Warehouse Theater Company is clearly unafraid of the unwieldy, at times confusing tale, and dives full force into its numerous bloody layers. The cast, nearly two dozen strong, are nothing if not energetic. They swashbuckle with gusto, often bringing the rough-and-tumble action directly into the audience. They jump over bystanders as if they are merely trivial obstacles…and it is often breathtaking.
Nicholas Martin-Smith, the troupe’s artistic director, both directed and plays the title character. He doesn’t disappoint. An old Boston boy, he cut his teeth in our theatre community back in the 1980s; I and others must have ‘done him some good’ because he was able to pull off this demanding role with flair.
Monica Cangero, a two year member of the theatre, played a Tamora who has a very strong taste for bloodletting. Her interpretation provided a powerful through line for this production — the character’s unwavering commitment to destruction drove the action to its inevitable conclusion.
Patrina Caruana, as Lavinia, did well by the challenging role of the sweet innocent who suffers most of all.
Of course, the risk of doing outdoor theatre in New York is all the potential aural distractions, and last weekend was no exception. There was a helicopter that buzzed by countless times as well as incessant street traffic and some noisy ships passing through the night. The sound system that is supposed to aid the actors gave them problems, and the breeze, though refreshing, did little to help the actors’ voices reach the ears of the audience.
But these are all small complaints compared to a lazy night of Shakespearean mayhem in the park.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.