Showing her knack for timing, director Christy Stanlake has announced the U.S. Naval Academy Masqueraders will bookend Halloween with weekend performances of "Titus Andronicus" — "Shakespeare's first and bloodiest play" is the way she describes it — Oct. 26-27 and Nov. 2-4 at Mahan Theatre on campus.
In her 11th year as Masqueraders director, Stanlake, who is also an associate professor, is known for her insightful and courageous choices of plays. When she came aboard in fall 2002, Stanlake immediately displayed vision by focusing on the role of female military leadership in George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan."
When Stanlake joined the Naval Academy's English department, 15 percent of midshipmen were women. "Now it's over 22 percent," she says, pointing out that studies have shown that "treatment of minority groups improves greatly when the minority population reaches above 20 percent," as it did under academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt.
In selecting plays each year, Stanlake considers those examining ethical questions of power and leadership, mercy and forgiveness set in various cultures and eras. The setting may be 2000 Rome as in John Guare's "Chaucer in Rome," staged in 2003, or ancient Rome as in "Titus Andronicus."
"I select our plays on a four-year cycle of classic play, avant-garde, Shakespearean and comedy so that midshipmen who spend four years in Masqueraders experience how authors of multiple genres and eras use the theatrical medium to both reflect and change society," Stanlake says. "Each play we perform aims to address important ethical issues that are either now or will be critical to the Brigade of Midshipmen."
In addition to its Halloween-appropriate gore component, "Titus Andronicus" was selected for several cogent reasons.
Speaking to the play's current relevance, Stanlake says: "Titus is a man whose actions are shaped in part by having served on multiple deployments to war. In preparation, some emphasis was given to Antonin Artaud's 'Theatre of Cruelty' in relation to ideas presented by [Marine Corps] veteran and [Naval Academy] guest speaker Karl Marlantes' critical discussion about warfare, ritual and the reintegration of veterans. This shapes the production concept for 'Titus Andronicus,' where a battle-weary veteran returns to a politically tumultuous homeland after multiple contiguous deployments."
The plot tells of Roman general Titus Andronicus, who returns from 10 years of war after defeating the Goths, bringing as captives their queen, Tamora, her three sons and her Moorish lover, Aaron.
Having lost 21 sons in the war, Titus returns with only four surviving. To honor his dead sons with a fitting funeral, Titus' son Lucius suggests that Queen Tamora's eldest son, Alarbus, be sacrificed. After newly crowned Roman emperor Saturninus chooses Tamora as his empress, she plots her revenge by planning the destruction of Titus' daughter Lavinia and the imprisonment of his sons. Only Lucius survives by fleeing Rome and joining the Goths.
Considered to be Shakespeare's most violent work, the play has 14 killings, nine of them on stage; three rapes; one case of cannibalism; and a live burial. Popular in its day, "Titus Andronicus" fell out of favor in the Victorian era and only by the mid-20th century did its reputation begin to improve.
The Masqueraders will offer their 105th production this season, continuing to boast a most dedicated troupe of thespians who find time for creativity in a packed academic schedule. From what I observed at rehearsal, I predict polished performances by a dynamic acting troupe headed by Midshipman 1st Class Michael McPherson in a riveting performance as Titus. Top-flight execution of formidable combat choreography is guaranteed.
Audiences should be aware of Stanlake's intent as she focuses on this historical study pertinent to our time. "The concept of family home relations shape the staging of this play to connect our audience to the world of Titus and ritual to frame the emotional journey Titus endures," she says. Battle-weary veteran Titus returns home to wrestle with spiritual demons, much as contemporary soldiers try to rejoin their families after serving in combat.
Artaud's belief that we are not free but victims of our fate is also reinforced here. The commander of a Roman army, Titus has lived his life in service to Rome, and lost many of his sons in battle. After unstable emperor Saturninus comes to power with Titus' backing, Titus learns that Saturninus has used his family's sacrifices for his own gains, not for the betterment of Rome. This realization leads Titus to rage, "Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey. But me and mine."
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Performances are scheduled at the Naval Academy's Mahan Theatre at 8 p.m. Oct. 26-27 and Nov. 2-3, and at 2 p.m. Nov. 4. Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for groups of 10 or more and can be ordered by calling 410-293-8497 or purchased at the door before performances.