Jay O. Sanders does not enter a scene; scenes approach his orbit and get yanked in. Is Sanders — perhaps the most versatile ursine theater actor working today — some kind of a clown? An oaf? A monster? A blowhard? A naif? He’s been them all: His Sir Toby Belch of Twelfth Night was suitably ludicrous, but also a terrifying bully; his Richard Apple, of Sweet and Sad, used swagger and political apostasy to cloak a palpable fear of/for his troubled sisters. Where does an actor go from there? To Titus Andronicus, of course.
Titus is a wet splat of a revenger’s tragedy, a raw, early genre work from Shakespeare. Overstuffed with ghoulish pagan carnage, endless cycles of retribution, and carefully staged mischances and moral miscalculations, it’s not so much a play as a meat grinder that eats pieties and spits out insanity. Of course, one Roman’s pieties are another Goth’s butcheries, and this — plus heavy helpings of racial bitterness and civilization-size resentment — keeps Titus’s blood-pump primed. In Michael Sexton’s deceptively austere, ripely portentous production, built with nothing but a sack of axes and knives and a stack of increasingly gore-spackled plywood panels, Titus (Sanders) is a doomed parody of Cincinnatus, the simple soldier who served his country valiantly in battle and returned not for an imperial crown (like the usual Roman war hero), but for a return to simple domestic life. It’s not to be for Titus: His sins have followed him off the battlefield, in the form of the Goth queen Tamora (the wonderful, carnivorous Stephanie Roth Haberle); her eldest son Titus, according to protocol, has been ordered to be executed. Titus buries sons faster than cats bury spoor — he’s lost some twenty at the beginning of the play — but the horrors of war can’t compare to the exigencies of politics. Soon enough, Tamora’s sitting on the throne next to Emperor Saturnine (a deliciously wicked Jacob Fishel), who, it turns out, has an eye for Goth girls. And Titus starts losing children all over again, including his beloved daughter Lavinia (Jennifer Ikeda, brilliantly breakable and horrifyingly durable all at once). Only this time, it’s “peacetime,” and he’s left with no recourse in sanctioned wrath. Madness and murder follow, and Sexton makes us clap for it. Some of us, that is. I love watching modern audiences applaud revenge, which Shakespeare found so contemptible that he couldn’t stop writing about it. We want blood! (Even now! Fascinating.) And we get it, along with cannibalism, rape, mutilation, and child murder.
This Titus has its tics and its affectations: I liked the naive drawings scrawled ominously on the plywood planks like an abused child’s cries for help. And I enjoyed the abused child himself, Frank Dolce, who stands in for all children, all sons, all innocents, and ends up dying at least four times and doused in buckets of blood. Sexton has indulged himself with static lyricism and ceremonial gesture in a few places where action (or a judicious cut) might have been called for. But a good 90 percent of Titus is devoted to solid madness, as it should be, and Sanders, once unleashed and unhinged by the collapse of his moral universe, is a fine, fierce monster. One swing of his meaty arm, we in the audience feel, could fell us all. On the night I attended, a chunk of ceiling plaster fell and nearly brained an audience member. The crowd barely noticed. It’s moments like that when an actor or a director knows he is doing something right.