This Wednesday night, 20 other theater-goers and I stood on the slightly stuffy second floor landing of Street Hall until we, in groups of threes and fours, were lead into Room 261. Along one side of the medium-sized classroom was a stage, three feet deep and one foot high, on which the play’s cast sat in those old-school chairs reading newspapers. At the other side of the room were two rows of twelve chairs, which the audience took quietly as they watched the unavoidably enthralling tableau.

Set off by some imaginary starting gun, Derek Miller ’04, who plays the slimy Saturninus with outstanding sleaze, jumps up from his seat and walks the 15 feet of floor separating the stage and audience, yelling at the staged audience (who are addressed as Roman Patricians). Thus begins William Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus,” directed by the widely respected (and rightfully so) Peter James Cook ’05, who has staged the famously violent play with care, thought and love. The energy with which it begins damn near holds up perfectly throughout the two-hour long show.

Eric Gilde ’05 plays the aged Titus with subtly and grace, yet scene after scene is stolen by Miller. In his cheap suit and tiny tie, he resembles a mix between Woody Allen and Steve Buscemi at their very creepiest, yet is so convincing when he addresses us Patricians that it’s almost impossible to not sympathize with him. His opening address is interrupted by Bassianus (Stefano Theodoli ’06), and the two shout simultaneously at the audience a la the Velvet Underground’s “Murder Mystery.” It is a wonderful moment, one that symbolizes the extent to which the spectacle of the incredible play is held high above the text (which many consider one of Shakespeare’s least poetic).

The most important part of that spectacle is the violence, and the play, which culminates in a mother unknowingly eating her children, has its fair share of it. Murder is artfully symbolized by the cutting off of an article of clothing, and a very real, very sharp knife does the dirty work. Cook steers clear of a “Kill Bill” bloodbath, and wisely so. Though rarely succumbing to overacting, the cast admirably handles the vicious vengefulness and terrifying horror that is the backbone of the play.

Tamora, whose thirst for revenge against Titus drives the tragedy, is played by a cross-dressing Timothy Smith ’05, whose drag becomes conspicuously more extravagant as his character gets more vicious. Tamora is an enigma — at once a caring mother, backstabber, and lascivious adulteress — and the casting choice, not to mention Smith’s understated performance, heightens the complexity of the audience’s response to her. Tamora connives against Titus with the “evil-incarnate” Aaron (Tommy Hobson ’05), her lover, and Smith chillingly manipulates the homoeroticism between them. Hobson’s one-note evilness seems lackluster in comparison with the brilliant energy pulsing throughout the rest of the play, and it’s often difficult to understand what his character is doing.

It is in thanks largely to its energy that Cook’s adaptation of “Titus” comes off so well. Despite the almost over-the-top violence, the play comes across as organic and genuine: the lightening changes are done by the actors, who turn lights on and off, yield flashlights, and even use a common classroom appliance to illuminate the scariest scenes; their clothes (mostly Men’s Warehouse-esque blazers and army surplus camouflage) appear to come from their own wardrobes.

“The show evolves out of the space,” producer Eli Clark ’07 said, which wisely sums up the play. It is a natural, creative, but above all moving adaptation that is as much fun to watch as it is to consider afterward.

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