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Play Turns Violence Inside Out

Portland Playhouse presents Shakespeare's 'Titus'

The cast of Portland Playhouse’s “Titus Andronicus,” Shakespeare’s most violent play, now showing through April 10.


What is a responsible way to portray unchecked violence and brutality on stage? How might wrestling transparently with that question humanize both audience members and theater makers, and help us experience the art in a new way?


Portland Playhouse’s production of “Titus” presents Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” with those aims front of mind. It’s Shakespeare’s most violent play, packed with cycles of revenge that include murder, dismemberment, sexual violence, and cannibalism. The play as constructed externalizes the impacts of violence, turns violence inside out and takes it to extremes so that its impacts can better seen. This production follows Shakespeare’s logic to a metatheatrical place, confronting us with how playing and watching violence also impacts us.


The story of the play involves a warrior, Titus, returning home to Rome with a vanquished queen, Tamara, as his captive. In the first scene, Tamara’s eldest son is killed in retribution for the deaths of some of Titus’s sons in wars with her people. Tamara activates her lover (who doesn’t require much activating) and her two remaining sons to acts of revenge aimed at Titus, who then aims more acts of revenge at Tamara.


Although the level of gore in this play is extreme, depictions of violence are common on both stage and screen, and are often played with abandon. I just spent three hours watching “The Batman,” for example, which is also full of elaborate gore, and my own top 10 list of movies for 2022 puts at number three “The Power of the Dog,” the story of a man who aims his toxicity at his sister-in-law, with violent consequences. In the latter film, star Benedict Cumberbatch reportedly remained in character on set and barely spoke to Kirsten Dunst, who played his sister-in-law, while they were filming.


It's possible that working that way improved their performances, but at what cost? Occasionally I have asked myself such questions; when I saw “Detroit,” for example, I wondered about a white director filming scenes a violence perpetrated by white actors on Black people in a way that emphasized them as victims. Historically accurate, perhaps, but not a complete of Black experience—and what did the experience of making the film cost those Black actors, not to mention the white ones? Portland Playhouse moves those questions to the forefront with this production. How does watching scenes of violence impact audience members? What does playing acts of violence exact from members of the cast? This production was built with a priority around those questions.


Actor La’Tevin Alexander opens the show with some instructions about how the body processes emotions like fear and trauma and anxiety, and offers some suggestions for audience members to take care of themselves during and after the show. Reactions to the violence, including audible ones, are encouraged. Humor is employed as a tension reliever in some scenes. When a character is killed, the actor’s exit from the stage is accomplished with obvious care; often other actors will call the person playing the just-killed character by their given name and help them up, walking them out gently. Care was taken during rehearsals to leave the violence on the stage, and to work through how to perform with kindness toward each other.


Fight directors have been an essential part of stage work for quite some time, and intimacy directors, who work to help the cast observe appropriate boundaries for depicting intimacy with respect, care, and full consent, are likewise coming to be seen as essential to responsible theater work. Portland Playhouse engaged a fight director, an intimacy director, and a cultural competency consultant, with an eye toward surfacing deeper consciousness around the care needed to present violence and intimacy responsibly. Directors Tina Packer and Brian Weaver sought to approach the work in a humanizing way, evincing recognition that presenting violence involves a sort of intimacy that deserves awareness and care.


The results can feel a bit meta, breaking the fourth wall between audience and performers. But I was not wishing for more of what we would term “realism” in the presentation of this material, particularly in Portland Playhouse’s intimate space in the King neighborhood in what was once a Black church. Why do we think it is more realistic to present violence as though it is real, while not acknowledging significant parts of its toll on those who experience violence in life, on those who portray it, and on audience members watching it? Maybe that is the wrong kind of real; many, perhaps most actual experiences of violence similarly tend to come with minimization of its impacts, and it could be argued that artistic depictions facilitate that by hiding or minimizing impacts as well. Might it actually be more realistic (and certainly responsible) to depict violence in a way that acknowledges and accounts for some of its impacts? This production, aided by the excellent work of its committed cast and crew, made me hold that question in a new way—and made me think differently about films like “The Power of the Dog” too. In my book, that’s a good reason to see this production of this violent play. You can see it at Portland Playhouse through April 10.


Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.

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