Titus Andronicus was William Shakespeare’s first stab at tragedy—stab being the operative word. It is far and away the Bard’s grisliest play, containing murder, rape, cannibalism, two beheadings, three behandings and one betonguing. In Emma Peterson’s graphic and savage staging, all these gruesome deeds, many of which take place onstage, effectively convey a state of moral chaos where there are no real good guys. We pity the title character, an old Roman soldier whose life and family are destroyed by Tamora, the spiteful queen of the Goths who becomes a spiteful Roman empress. At the same time, we never forget it was Titus’s merciless treatment of Tamora’s son that kicked off the family feud in the first place. Violence begets violence, and acts of revenge prompt further acts of revenge until no one from either side is left standing.
The production is nearly wrecked, however, by Simina Contras’s scenery-chewing turn as Tamora. Contras allows no murkiness in her cartoonishly vampy interpretation of the queen, who comes across with the subtlety of a silent-movie villain. Dennis Newport fares better as Titus; he plays him as an aging warrior who’s pugnacious and a little mean but also haunted by what he’s seen and done. Even stronger is Dominique Worsley as Tamora’s henchman, Aaron the Moor. He’s the most irredeemably bad character of them all, yet Worsley always seems the most intelligent and elegant figure in the room.