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Review: Athens’ National Theatre’s “Titus Andronicus”

Titus Andronicus at Athens’ National Theatre

People unused to Shakespeare sometimes complain that his plays are so hard to understand, he might as well have been writing in a different language. With practice, Shakespeare becomes easier to follow, but the National Theatre of Athens’ production of Titus Andronicus would have stretched even the best-read Shakespearean connoisseur’s comprehension. In spite of some promising moments of clarity and power, this Titus from director Angela Brouskou and translator Giorgos Depastas ended up in as many disconnected pieces as the characters of the play do.

Lavinia (far left) laughs as Tamora (in red) and Saturninus (far right) learn what Titus (in white) has served them for dinner.

If you don’t know Titus Andronicus, here are the very basic facts: Titus is a Roman general with lots of sons and one daughter. He has just conquered the Goths and brought some of them home as party favors, including one that he sacrifices to the gods. He helps elect the young Saturninus as emperor of Rome. Saturninus marries Tamora, the captive queen of the Goths. The two of them, with a little help from Tamora’s bit-on-the-side, Aaron the Moor, proceed to systematically ruin Titus’ life, at which point Titus turns around and systematically ruins theirs right back. Everyone ends up dead, generally in horrible ways: the ones that just get stabbed with swords are the lucky ones.

Yes, this is the play with the chick who gets her hands and tongue cut off after two guys rape her (offstage), after which her father executes her rapists (onstage) and serves them to their mother in a pie (onstage). You might be familiar with Julie Taymor’s cinematic version, Titus.

The cast goes hunting. At left, Bassanius and Lavinia. Standing center, Saturninus and an extra wearing a cat head. With spear, Tamora.

I bring up Taymor’s version because the National Theatre’s Titus often reminded me of the film’s aesthetic. Both featured mishmashs of costume styles, highly stylized violence, and incongruous comedy. And let’s be clear: there’s a way to use broad performances and even comedy in a tragedy in a way that works. Revenge tragedies like Titus lend themselves especially well to that approach because the amount of blood spilt becomes almost farcical. The problem is that if you’re going to take that route, you need to commit to one of two choices: either make the play into a parody (as when the Reduced Shakespeare Company makes Titus into a cooking show), or figure out how to make the audience laugh in horror (as when Taymor presents severed heads like sideshow attractions).

This Titus couldn’t decide whether it was taking itself seriously or not. The production opened with a beautiful and promising tableau: A long table dominated center stage, covered in red flowers, while microphones on stands stood downstage just left and right of center, framing the table. Downstage left stood a TV with tape over the screen, silently playing something appropriately violent and Roman. Andronicus’ family and Bassianus entered from one side dressed in white suits; Saturninus and the Goths entered from the other dressed in black. They laughed and talked with each other, approached the table, and all lifted glasses of red liquid in a toast. Saturninus (Kostas Vasardanis) seemed wry, Tamora (Maria Kechagioglou) looked bitter, Bassianus and Lavinia (Dimitris Agartzidis and Parthenopi Bouzouri) glowed with earnest fervor. Moments later a fight broke out between the brothers Saturninus and Bassianus, and they strode downstage to the microphones to lambast each other and argue their claims for the throne.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long after that for things to start falling apart. Demetrius and Chiron (Petros Malamas and Ilias Kounelas) were mere caricatures of sociopaths, more ridiculous than frightening. Tamora spent the whole play slinking around the stage in pants that looked uncomfortably tight. Aaron (Kostas Falelakis) chewed so much scenery I expected to see toothmarks on the set — almost literally in a few moments. By contrast, Lavinia became mute and passive long before her tongue was cut out. Had I been watching the play in English, though, I would have been appalled at the lack of nuance. (In fairness, though the bizarre overacting generally helped me follow the plot in spite of the language barrier.)

Overall, in spite of the strong beginning, the production simply didn’t hold together. The first act’s few strange moments were easily accepted or ignored in favor of the production’s very effective gore. Over time, though, horror turned into plain weirdness that seemed to aim for laughs without ever getting them. In one particularly baffling scene in the second act, Lucius (Ippokratis Delveroudis), clad in a suit of armor, orated while doing robotic semaphore-like moves for a good ten minutes; people in masks hissed and growled into the microphones the entire time. At least one American audience member I attended the show with gave up on trying to understand and fell asleep.

Left, Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls. Right, Lavinia.

The leather-and-lace punk-military aesthetic of the costumes — Lavinia in particular looked like she’d escaped from a Dresden Dolls album – and the stark lines of the set pieces were effective, but there was a lot of unnecessary stuff onstage. Six taxidermy seagulls sat in the down left corner of the stage, just hanging out giving the whole affair a faintly Wild Dada Ducks air. Nooses descended from the flies as Titus pled for the lives of two of his sons, which would have worked just fine as an indicator of the gallows atmosphere without the plastic mannequin hanging from one of them. Performers donned masks, sometimes to make the double-casting work but just as often for no apparent reason except to make themselves look creepy.

And don’t get me started on the sound design. Underscoring music ran through much of the play, much too loud and repetitively to be anything but annoying. One or two scenes had me wanting to cover my ears so I wouldn’t have to hear Carmina Burana any more.

To be honest, I have trouble deciding whether or not the production was successful. I found the choices made incomprehensible and unjustified, and as a result didn’t enjoy the play. But was I, an American student with limited Greek, the audience Ms. Brouskou wanted to reach? Probably not. What seemed pointless and weird to me may have made perfect sense to the Greek audience members. The fact remains that I found it pointless and weird. I had hoped to be moved by the tragedy of the Roman general gone mad; instead I was bored by the tragedy of uneven production design. As the Greeks say, δεν καταλαβαίνω — I don’t understand.

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“Odin’s Horse” program note

[From the 2009 Pittsburgh Eco-Drama Festival, sponsored by the Carnegie Mellon University Center for the Arts in Society and the School of Drama.]

NOTES ON THE PLAY

Odin’s Horse was the winner of the 2004 Ecodrama Playwright’s Festival in Oregon, one of the first festivals of its kind in the United States. Set in the redwood forests of Northern California and the mythic, treeless landscape of Iceland, the play is fiction – but the issues it tackles are as solid as lumber and mountains.

Here’s a truth: In 1993, one study found that of California’s 2.5 million-plus acres of old-growth – that’s slightly more than 2,500,000 – only a little more than seven hundred thousand acres were protected from logging. Put that another way: the total area of old-growth forests in CA is 3,945 square miles, which is about a thousand square miles smaller than the state Connecticut. The area of that that’s reserved and protected? 1,134 square miles – just a little bigger than Rhode Island.

The total area of virgin forests in the world, including old-growth forests, is about 5,057,938 square miles. That’s a little bigger than the continent of Antarctica. (Well, as Antarctica is currently shaped – but the breakup of the ice caps is an issue for another play.)

According to the National Park Service, 96% of the original old-growth coast redwoods – trees like Astra’s – have been logged. We’re never going to see them again – although a little bit of one of them might be woven into the paper this program is printed on.

 

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“She’s Making Movies” (excerpt)

[Excerpt from “‘She’s Making Movies’: The Blair Witch Project and Mulvey’s Theory of the Gaze,” written as the culmination of my critical writing studies at Carnegie Mellon.]

Mulvey’s three gazes and The Blair Witch Project

Mulvey’s theory of the three gazes relies on traditional cinematography, because her analysis of film’s scopophilic pleasures is predicated on the way that traditional cinematography subordinates and collapses two gazes into one and makes them reliant on the third. The characters gaze at each other; the camera gazes at the characters; the spectator gazes at what the camera captures. Traditional cinematography encourages the spectator to lose his awareness of his own gaze and the camera’s gaze, to identify with a character on-screen, and therefore to subordinate the camera’s/his own gaze to the character’s gaze.

The Blair Witch Project resists collapsing the three gazes in the same way. The spectator is made constantly aware of the camera and its gaze, for a start. One of the earliest scenes in the movie is Heather and Josh filming each other filming each other, Heather on the 16mm and Josh on the Hi-8. The characters constantly reference the camera throughout the movie, particularly as things become more tense and Heather insists on continuing to film events. The shaky camerawork—the inconsistent and sometimes obscured gaze of the camera—also makes it impossible to forget the camera’s presence. However—with a few exceptions, such as the documentary-style shots near the beginning of the movie—the camera also functions as the characters’ gaze throughout the film. When the trio runs through the woods at night, the cameras provide light for them, metaphorically acting as their eyes. Heather seems to do the bulk of the filming, and her footage is the last that we see, so the events of the movie are primarily shown to the audience the same way she sees them. Often, the gazes of camera, character, and spectator are all collapsed into one—but at times, particularly moments of high tension, the three gazes are fragmented. The characters are looking elsewhere, ignoring the camera so that it only captures confused glimpses of the woods, and the spectator cannot help but be aware of the fact that he is watching a movie (albeit one that he may think is a documentary, not fiction). The movie drags the spectator back and forth between making him acutely aware of his own voyeurism by fragmenting all three gazes, and making him identify strongly with a character without the comforting ability to look at his on-screen self by unifying all three gazes.

Changing the way the gazes are prioritized opens up new possibilities for analysis. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the way The Blair Witch Projectcomplicates the gender of the spectator. Mulvey’s analysis of narrative cinema assumes a male spectator. That is not necessarily to say that every spectator that watches a movie identifies as male in everyday life; rather, the way traditional narrative cinema guides and manipulates the spectator’s gaze constructsthe spectator as male by privileging the viewpoint and story of an active male protagonist, a subject, and de-emphasizing the viewpoint of a passive female counterpart, an object. In The Blair Witch Project, though, the privileged story and viewpoint belong to Heather, and all of the characters on-screen, male or female, are more acted-upon than active. Heather tries to be masculine and in charge of the excursion, but she is very quickly rendered powerless once the trio is lost in the woods. Yet she remains a subject in the film by staying behind the camera most of the time. When Heather turns the camera on herself for her tearful, terrified (and much parodied) confession near the end of the movie, the spectator can see her as an object, as Mulvey would have us believe the camera always does; she is a distorted fragment of a face, all eyes and comically prominent nose, and she is abject and paralyzed with fear. At this late point in the movie, though, the spectator can also uneasily view her as a reflection of self, having been with her—indeed, been her—through so much of the movie.

Identifying with a female protagonist happens rarely in mainstream cinema, but happens more often than most people would expect in horror films. In “Her Body, Himself,” Carol J. Clover argues that the female protagonists of slasher films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Friday the Thirteenth—the character that she calls the Final Girl—is uniquely situated as a figure adolescent boys can identify with:

The Final Girl 1) undergoes agonising trials, and 2) virtually or actually destroys the antagonist and saves herself. By the lights of folk tradition, she is not a heroine, for whom phase 1 consists in being saved by someone else, but a hero, who rises to the occasion and defeats the adversary with his own wit and hands. (Clover 244)

Heather is indeed the final girl in The Blair Witch Project, which bears many similarities to the kinds of slasher movies Clover deals with, but she is not a Final Girl because she does not save herself. The Final Girl’s trajectory is from passive, victimised female to active, powerful male; Heather’s trajectory is from masculine director to feminine victim. In this way, The Blair Witch Projectis fairly unique in narrative cinema, then, because it ultimately constructs its spectators as female.