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Titus Andronicus

"Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge." Act I, scene ii

Written: 1593

The Thrillpeddlers ; May 27, 2006 San Francisco, CA
Starring :
Reviewed on : 0000-00-00 00:00:00 ; Reviewed by : Denise Battista

The Thrillpeddlers
It was a dark and stormy night, and I was searching for the Hypnodrome. Okay it was a clear night, but this beginning fits the playbill well. I found the Thrillpeddlers' setting for their production of Titus Andronicus after a long enough time wandering around a not so flattering area in San Francisco - overpasses shading the already dark night, cars whizzing by in the onlyway traffic, deformed chain link fences protecting something other than me -- and then I saw the light. A fire twirler beckoned my eyes, and two off-duty actresses lingering inside a loading dock confirmed my suspicions that I was in the right place. I braved the traffic and crossed over to the other side, where Bassianus (Eric O'Brien), dressed in a simple white toga, welcomed me to Rome by opening that once uninviting fence. I was drawn to the small crowd standing in the gravel, warming themselves by the twirling fire.

The rest is a whirlwind in slow motion. Or perhaps it was a really good nightmare, luring me into the fantastical arena of the Hypnodrome. Once inside, there's a lot to see - a guillotine; a player piano that plays a spectrum of music from the "Ode to Joy" to "Bohemian Rhapsody" to "Dueling Banjos" from "Deliverance"; skeletons draped over chandeliers; a bloody hand reaching for your tips at the bar; secret passages; and a 2004 review by Delfin Vigil of the San Francisco Chronicle, summing up the theatre in six simple words: "Horror with a touch of kink."

Founder, director, and actor, Russell Blackwood, delivers a witty prologue in iambic tetrameter, setting the stage for the thrills to come. The play begins with Vigil's noted touch of kink, as Mary Knoll, who plays a sultry, sinister, smart Tamora, is wheeled onstage in a basket. She is chained and bound, and surrounded by her three sons who walk alongside the basket, also chained, bound, and wearing leather bondage half-hoods. Within the link is Aaron (Armond Edward Dorsey), cuffed and wearing a metal bondage bit gag, also chained to the basket.

The strong familial bond between Lavinia (Jena Rose) and a most loyal and Roman Titus (Tim Hendrixson) is apparent, and makes poor Lavinia's eventual torture and demise all the more tragic. Blood is not spared in this play, and sometimes (just sometimes) the gore is more potential than actual. After Tamora makes an odd "Xena the Warrior Princess" call to Chiron and Demetrius who return the call, Lavinia begs and fights for her life and her chastity, and of course she loses the latter. Her big reveal after one heck of a makeover, mangled haircut included, left me sitting on the edge of my seat until her death scene three Acts later. Once she is relieved of her tongue, Rose looks as though she is holding something in her mouth. Of course, my natural inclination is to think that the cup runneth over blood in this play would pour from her mouth, but it does not. The anticipation is sweet and sickening...and sweet.

And then my review converts to the episodic. Dead bodies are placed in secret drawer-like compartments that lead to some underworld beneath the stage - beneath the audience. Tamora plays the organ upstage center, as an accompaniment on the one hand, but as a reminder on the other of her hand in this tragedy. Any and all lust is overplayed - Tamora and Aaron grope one another in the wood, Chiron and Demetrius may very well have offended poor Lavinia -- but not in a bad way; rather in a nasty, good way. This all occurs, and occurs well. The cast never misses a beat, a line, a pun, a possibility. And then there is Aaron.

The unmasked Aaron slithers onstage with a look of evil and lust as he exchanges his gaze between Tamora and the audience. Dorsey perfects the malignant nature of his character, and for the duration of the play, he holds a malevolent, foreboding smile on his face that chilled and thrilled me to the bone. The female Chiron (Le Anne Rumbel) and Demetrius (Treacy Corrigan), who are interestingly clad throughout the performance, join Aaron onstage. Both Rumbel and Corrigan are the same height and build. Their hair is the same color and length, and pulled back in the same almost masculine ponytail. They walk the same, talk the same, lust the same. They even wear the same smile as their father figure, Aaron. The two are only discernable by their boots. Demetrius wears them in brown, Chiron in black. This is interesting, as it tells me that their characters, through the eyes of Blackwood, are interchangeable. This makes sense, as the two are never seen as one. They rape, they murder, they die together, and they are guided down the same path together by the easy reign of Aaron. Aaron, too, must die, and as he is fastened breast-deep in earth, repenting any good deed he may have committed, Dorsey delivers his lines in a sort of erotic bliss, leaving me mesmerized, and frighteningly sad to see him go.

Acknowledgement must be paid to Victor Ballesteros, who portrays Saturninus. Ballesteros speaks boldly and through his teeth, leering through eyes lined in black. I'm thrilled that Ballesteros is a much more aware and knowing Saturninus than others I've seen, making him more an accomplice rather than a pawn in Tamora's ploys. But this is not the acknowledgement of which I speak. In the final scene, in which Lavinia, Tamora, Saturninus, and Titus all die, it is Ballesteros' eyes that haunt me. As he lay dead, draped in such a manner that his face looks backwards and upside down toward the audience, he holds his death stare until the end of the performance. This may sound like an odd thing to mention, but there are over 140 lines remaining in the play. It is extraordinary, and an eerie visual to carry in a room that suddenly goes twice as black as pitch. To complete this Shockfest, out of the corner of the stage comes a blue-lit skeleton, who dances to the player piano, who falls apart, and who drags himself from the stage.


The Thrillpeddlers' production of Titus Andronicus, directed by Russell Blackwood, is playing at San Francisco's Hypnodrome through June 4th, 2006. www.hypnodrome.com

Samuel Woodforde,
Lavinia, Demetrius and Chiron

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