Jay O. Sanders and Jennifer Ikeda
in Titus Andronicus
(© Joan Marcus)
Jay O. Sanders and Jennifer Ikeda
in Titus Andronicus
(© Joan Marcus)
Director Michael Sexton puts a cloyingly pretentious spin on Shakespeare's early -- and gory -- Roman tragedy Titus Andronicus, now at the Public Theater.

The production's problems are compounded by confusing double-casting that could leave anyone unfamiliar with this rarely staged play scratching their heads. Moreover, while Sexton has at his disposal a fine company, led by the commanding Jay O. Sanders in the title role, his staging proves wearying well before it has run its bloody course.

In the opening moments, Titus (Sanders) returns to Rome from battle, with Tamara, Queen of the Goths (Stephanie Roth Haberle), and her sons Demetrius (William Jackson Harper) and Chiron (Patrick Carroll), as his prisoners. When Titus' son Lucius (Rob Campbell) demands that Tamara's eldest son be sacrificed in retribution for the casualties suffered by the Romans, a teenage boy (Frank Dolce), who had greeted Lucius lovingly on his entrance, is dragged offstage to meet his death.

It's not the last that theatergoers will see of the well-spoken Dolce, who returns to the stage, playing both one of Titus' sons and Lucius' child. (Similarly, Daoud Heidami has been cast in multiple roles.)

It's unfortunate that theatergoers find themselves struggling with this early moment in the play because it sets the stage for the bloodbath that follows after Tamara has secured her freedom from the newly named emperor Saturnine (made a haughty spitfire by Jacob Fishel) and become his wife.

Her servant and lover Aaron (played with cool, understated villainy by Ron Cephas Jones) spurs her two remaining sons to rape Titus' daughter Lavinia (the always reliable Jennifer Ikeda), after which, to ensure their identities are not revealed, they cut out her tongue and sever her hands.

Aaron also frames Titus' sons, Quintus and Martius (voiced by members of the ensemble), for the murder of Saturnine's brother, resulting in their executions and Lucius' banishment for his defense of his kinsmen. And before the play has ended, Titus -- teetering between sanity and madness -- has uncovered the plots against his family and wreaked his own revenge on Tamara, even as Lucius has rallied his former enemies -- the Goths -- to his side and attacked the city.

Throughout, Sanders proves to be a formidable -- often riveting -- presence, imbuing the Roman general early on with a deft combination of cunning, bravado and hauteur. And as the wrongs against Titus and his family mount, it is, without question, pitiable to watch these qualities give way both to keenly felt despair and volcanic (albeit somewhat impotent) anger.

Sadly, this fine performance and the play's whirlwind of vengeance is accompanied by an often silly flurry of activity as the company continually removes sheets of plywood from a pile placed center stage by scenic designer Brett J. Banakis, rearranging them to become walls, tables, gravesites, and public platforms. Theatergoers may sense that the raw wood, sometimes painted with hieroglyphic-like symbols, is meant to give the production itself an organic and primal quality, but eventually the constant shifting of these boards -- along with the buckets of blood that coat them -- simply becomes a tiresome lesson in affected artiness.