It's an old problem when staging Shakespeare's epics: how to represent the adoring throngs and warring hordes that have to stay sequestered, just off-stage, due to a cast too small in number to convince us of a monarch's might.
But this intriguing Delta Boys production of Titus Andronicus, which the adventurous should seek out before it ends this weekend, has convinced me that it's possible to make a virtue of a necessary constraint. Here, the absence of marauding armies and cheering crowds is of a piece with the chosen set for this environmental work: the decidedly unrenovated second floor of what's become known over the past year as the Cordoba Center for the Arts, an industrial building behind the Golden Belt development in Durham.
Up a narrow, creaky flight of wooden stairs, stalactites of peeling paint hang from the rafters above a dirty former factory space, whose impact on this production all but qualifies it as another central character. Call it an afterplace: All that's left, long after an enterprise has passed its peak and its purpose has been abandoned. In the context of this show, this chill and largely empty room is but the skeleton of Rome; the remains, after its glory and virtue have been stripped and sold piecemeal—or mortgaged to the hilt and then foreclosed upon.
If further evidence were needed of an empire in severe decline, it accompanies Rome's two candidates to replace the lately deceased emperor in the second scene. The suave flattery (and underlying snark) of John Jimerson's Bassianus is no more to be trusted than the murderous hair trigger Chris Burner gives Saturninus, his elder brother and the dead Caesar's other son. Sparking the play's grisly chain of events, Titus imprudently chooses Saturninus for the post, mere moments after returning from a decade far from Rome, fighting the Goths on the frontier.
But this production suggests that doom actually lay here in both candidates. The telling absence of crowds invested in the outcome only reinforces the eerie sense of a dwindling community already well past its threshold of genetic viability. In this world, Rome is a city that's been wiped unclean, whose leaders bark orders and underlings seek comfort among a population largely made of ghosts.
In this violent tale, Shakespeare repeatedly questions the line dividing civilized behavior from barbarity. A noble young Roman commends the religious fires on which Tamora's son is sacrificed, "whose smoke, like incense, doth perfume the sky." Later, the only thing more chilling than a rape-based "honor killing" is the degree to which its victim seems to openly embrace it.
The lucky ones who catch this show will likely look back on Titus as a landmark role in the career of Tom Marriott. Under Carolyn McDaniel's direction, he has clearly interrogated Shakespeare's text, line by line, and brought to it a level of discernment, discipline and innate musicality comparable to Yo-Yo Ma's interpretations of Bach. Nan Mulleneaux and P.J. Maske plum substantive depths as well respectively as the vengeful Tamora and her victim, Lavinia. Both ably abet the solid performances noted above by Burner, Jimerson, McElvogue and, as the villain Aaron, an amusing Rajeev Rajendran. Together, these largely overcome a comparatively colorless, uneven sextet of smaller supporting roles.
In this "promenade theater" approach, intelligibility is occasionally sacrificed when new scenes begin as audience members scramble to relocate among the various performance areas. Otherwise, McDaniel's staging clearly illustrates what happens when the subtraction game of vengeance goes unchecked in a failing culture. After a string of revenge murders at the end, the new Roman monarch stands crowned on stage. He's also quite alone: his rule, unchallenged; his kingdom, a necropolis.
This article appeared in print with the headline "New futures and no futures."