In “Titus Andronicus,” revenge doesn’t just mean an eye for an eye. Tongues, hands, heads and lives are sacrificed in Shakespeare’s grisly tragedy set during the final days of the Roman Empire.
Theater companies never seem sure what to do with the play, written early in Shakespeare’s career as a run-up to great tragedies such as “Macbeth,” “Othello” and “King Lear.” Some camp it up. Most don’t do it at all. But it gets a rare and surprisingly potent staging in the new California Shakespeare Theater production.
As the company’s first-ever “Titus,” it opened Saturday to launch Cal Shakes’ 2011 season.
As the play begins, the Roman general Titus (played by the excellent James Carpenter) comes home. He’s been fighting the Goths for 10 years; 21 of his sons have died in the war. Now he’s victorious, and he returns ready to enjoy the honors and accolades of his people.
Instead, he finds a savage society — a “wilderness of tigers” led by a new emperor, Saturninus (Rob Campbell), who promptly marries Titus’ prize prisoner, the Goth queen Tamora (Stacy Ross).
The ensuing power struggle unleashes horror upon horror: rape, murder, dismemberment and cannibalism are all tools in the quest for dominance.
Director Joel Sass, who directed an eerie “Macbeth” for Cal Shakes last season, gives the new production a barren staging. Emily Greene’s set features concrete blocks and leafless trees; Paloma H. Young’s costumes drape the cast in browns and grays.
Russell H. Champa’s lighting and Andre Pluess’ sound add to the atmosphere of dread.
Carpenter gives a nuanced performance as Titus, a ruler driven by revenge and slipping into madness. Ross relishes Tamora’s sadistic edge, and Campbell makes Saturninus a twisted whiner, Anna Bullard is brilliant as Titus’ tormented daughter, Lavinia. Shawn Hamilton invests the evil Aaron — Tamora’s servant/lover — with vibrant energy.
Chad Deverman and David Mendelsohn play Tamora’s sons as murderous overgrown boys. Dan Hiatt exudes calm as the sage Marcus; Nicholas Pelczar, Delia Macdougall, Liam Vincent and Caleb Alexander make strong contributions in subsidiary roles.
In the last scenes, the bloodletting finally goes over the top, and Sass manages to wrest some humor from the gore. But his staging also carries considerable resonance for our time.
As “Titus Andronicus” ends, we see that revenge doesn’t settle the score. It simply starts the cycle of violence all over again.
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays; closes June 26
Tickets: $35 to $66
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org