Shakespeare is challenging for most professional theater troupes to pull off; even more so for amateur performers. This holiday season, however, Screen Plays has ambitiously partnered with DVC (Dream Visualize Create) to bring one of the Bard's bloodiest tales to life onstage — and they're doing it with a cast that features both high school and middle school students.
DVC was established in 2000 as a drama-video club by Wilson Magnet High School English teacher (and director of this production) Mario Savastano. Nearly 20 years later, the group is still performing in the community, and graduates of Wilson frequently return to perform as alums. As stated in the show's program, Savastano's mission is to "perform meaningful, socially-conscious theatre and nothing you've ever seen on a high school stage." And if this production is any indication, he's nailing that goal.
"Titus Andronicus" is one of Shakespeare's earliest and more controversial plays. Scholars for years have questioned whether or not it was penned by Shakespeare (though there are enough stylistic similarities that it likely was), and many believe Shakespeare collaborated with another writer, George Peele, on the completed version. Either way, it is a dark, vengeful production that isn't often performed due to its graphic content.
The plot follows a fictional battle of revenge between Roman general Titus Andronicus and Tamora, Queen of the Goths. When the play begins, the presiding Roman emperor has just died and it is announced that the people wish Titus to succeed him. But the general — just returning from war with Tamora and her sons as his prisoners — declines the throne. The emperor's son, Saturninus, ascends the throne and claims Titus's daughter, Lavinia, as his bride. However, she is already betrothed to his brother, Bassianus, and though Titus commands it, the couple refuses to part. In his anger, Saturninus takes Tamora as his bride to spite Titus. A vicious cycle of revenge ensues from then on, setting in motion torture, adultery, rape, and murder.
"Titus Andronicus" features more of the gender-blind casting followed by other companies in town this year. Age is also of no consequence here, since the cast appears to range in age from middle school to middle age. Because of the varying skill levels, the 110-minute show does have some hiccups, but Savastano has chosen his cast wisely.
In the title role is a marvelous Patrick White, who has appeared in many Shakespeare productions around town, including nearly every play the Shakespeare Players have staged. His grasp of the language and nuance required for such a character navigates the cast through difficult content, and it's clear that many of the younger actors watch him for guidance. Other notable performances include Marcy Savastano (who played Sebastian in Blackfriars' completely female version of "Twelfth Night" in September) as a regal Saturninus who leaves the audience wishing for more of her presence in the show; and Gwen P. Scott (a DVC alum), who portrays an authoritative, seductive Aaron the Moor. As Demetrius — Tamora's evil, conniving son — Joey Chacon embraces many subtle opportunities for character development. As Lucius, eldest son of Titus, young Miles Harrison shows serious acting chops with real tears and laser-like focus.
The set is stark and simple; boxes and moveable wall panels serve as a vague forest, palace, military camp and street. Costumes by Shelly Stam don't follow rhyme or reason, but the Goths in particular were aesthetically interesting, with stellar makeup by Alexis Vazquez (presumably, DVC does not have a large budget for costumes or set pieces — another reason to support their productions). Sound design by Michael Scipioni incorporates everything from Kanye West tracks to dubbed-over bits of world news (in particular, clips from a certain president). There are also sound effects for some of the more violent elements of the show, like gunshots.
On opening night, "Titus Andronicus" was almost at full house, with a more diverse — in age and ethnicity — audience than is seen in most local theaters. While the show may be dense on first blush, DVC and Screen Plays is filling an important hole in community theatre by tackling such a work. An educational partnership like this is to be commended on every level, and especially when Screen Plays is running another show concurrently.
"Titus Andronicus" is not a feel-good Christmas show. But for those who are over Tiny Tim and Ralphie and cotton-y snowflakes falling onstage, this might be the right choice. Heck, if "Die Hard" and "Gremlins" are considered Christmas films, then Shakespeare has a shot at the holidays, too. At the very least, it's worth going to support an impressively persevering theater program.