Yes, "Titus Andronicus" is a Shakespearean tragedy. But that's sort of like calling the Titanic sinking a boating mishap.
It's not just the many deaths, so numerous that it's easy to lose count. There's also the brutal rape, the mutilation, appendages severed every which way, bags carrying heads and hands ... oh, and a mother forced to eat a pie baked from the flesh of her sons.
Sorry. We didn't make all that up. Shakespeare did — and though Elizabethan audiences ate it up (sorry again), the playwright's earliest tragedy has always been one of his least popular.
So audiences rarely get to see "Titus" — one exception is Julie Taymor's memorably searing film version in 1999 — which is a very good reason for the Public Theater to have included it in its Lab series, where production values are basic, but quality still top-notch. Tickets are only $15, almost as good a deal as Shakespeare in the Park — without the waiting in line.
But let's offer this caveat: If you were horrified by the eye-gouging scene in the Public's "King Lear" earlier this season, well, "Titus" makes that scene look positively dainty.
If you can get past that, there's much to commend in this modern-dress production that opened Tuesday, directed with skill and appropriate zeal (why not embrace the madness?) by Michael Sexton, with an excellent cast that hopefully goes home at night to decompress with some light TV sitcoms.
The spare set consists almost entirely of a pile of large wooden planks, used in various ways — sometimes to represent bodies of the (quickly) falling. (The main prop: buckets of gore.) Another interesting touch: When a character dies, the same actor occasionally returns as another character. It could be an effort by the director to couch the blow of so much death. Or maybe it's just a way to maximize the actors.
The story begins with the victorious Roman general, Titus Andronicus, returning from battle after losing 21 of his 25 sons (and that's just for starters). His star prisoner is Tamora, the vanquished Queen of the Goths, with her three sons and her servant (and secret lover), the scheming Aaron. Titus promptly sacrifices Tamora's eldest son to the gods, setting in motion the play's cycle of deadly revenge.
As Titus, the powerful and imposing Jay O. Sanders starts out somewhat understated, even when killing yet another son in an early dispute, and it's a bit disconcerting. But it's soon clear that Titus has so much barbarism and unimaginable grief to face — atrocities that will eventually unhinge him — that the actor is wise to build slowly to a boil. Which, trust us, he will.
The most shocking atrocity is the vicious rape of his daughter, Lavinia, by Tamora's two sons — they also cut off her hands, and, to silence her, her tongue. As Lavinia, a touching Jennifer Ikeda somehow finds a way to make us feel truly sad, despite the ghoulishness of her circumstances.
Other notable performances include Jacob Fishel's cocky Saturninus, the new emperor of Rome who marries Tamora, giving her the power to wreak her revenge on Titus, and Rob Campbell as a stalwart Lucius, the one son of Titus who somehow survives. (There's always someone in a Shakespearean tragedy who gets to stay alive — who's going to have the last line, after all?)
Ron Cephas Jones, with his serpentine frame, angular face and compelling vocal delivery, is a chilling Aaron, the Moor who engineers much of the grisly mayhem. Sentenced to starve to death, Jones' Aaron deliciously utters what could be the most unapologetic line by a villain in all literature: "If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul."
Then there's Tamora, the ultimate villainess, played by Stephanie Roth Haberle with a cool shimmer of evil. The actress seemed to be struggling with hoarseness in a recent preview, but luckily there's no speaking necessary during her most shocking moment, when she realizes the pie she's been eating contains, well, her offspring.
So maybe "Titus" isn't the best pre-dinner outing. Best to eat first. But this rare production of one of Shakespeare's earliest and least seen plays surely deserves a few hours of your time.