Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee,

And with thy shame thy father’s sorrow die!

With these words, Titus Andronicus, the tragic hero of the Shakespeare play that bears his name, murders his only daughter, Lavinia. The murder is a desperate attempt to reclaim a sense of honor that Titus felt was lost when Lavinia was raped and mutilated, and when he suffered a separate, public humiliation at the hands of the Roman emperor. Titus’s slaying of Lavinia initiates a grisly finale that rivals the body count in any of Shakespeare’s better-known works. Titus Andronicus, which historians note was popular in Shakespeare’s time, is rarely performed today. T.S. Eliot went so far as to call it “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.”

Tom Riccio is not so sure. Riccio, the artistic director for the Organic Theater Company, has chosen a modern-dress version of Titus Andronicus as the season opener for the Organic’s new ensemble. “Certainly, Titus is by no means Shakespeare’s greatest work, but I like it,” says Riccio. “It has a cultural and social relevance to the enormous amount of violence in our society today.”

Riccio views Titus as an “honorable, religious, and rigid man, with certain values that hold to an extent, but which become dangerous for him if followed without questioning.

“He’s a straight shooter, raised on values that many of us were taught when we were little, but that don’t apply when we grow up. When the story of the play begins, Titus has been away from Rome for 40 years. He’s out of place, like someone from the 1940s put into a time capsule and released in the 1980s.”

Rome, in the time of Titus, was experiencing a moral decay marked by political violence at home and prolonged wars against the ever-pressing Goths. Riccio believes that today, we too “are surrounded by Goths, whether it be terrorism, whether it be gangs or political violence,” and that these pressures have brought about a decay in our own society. “Titus reflects the issues of loyalty, justice, and honor–those old American values that we say we still believe in, but that have gone by the wayside. The fact that we have so much insider trading, the fact that our president can scream about the mining of the Persian Gulf yet turn around and mine the harbors in Nicaragua, proves that we can twist and justify anything to fit our own desires. So long as we package it properly, we can accept anything. That tells me that moral and ethical decadence is pervasive.”

Riccio sees Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, hero of this summer’s Iran-contra hearings, as one contemporary analogue. “Ollie, like Titus, believes in the state, justice, and honor, and is deceived, in the end, by carrying out his orders without question.”

Talk of a “new” Organic Theater Company might sound odd. After all, the Organic has been part of the Chicago community for 15 years, producing such successes as Bleacher Bums, Huck Finn, and E/R. But when Riccio arrived at the Organic in 1985, he found it lacking actors. “In a way, the success of E/R aided the loss of the acting company. Many of the actors grew up with the company, and when success struck people were ready to go on to new things. It was then my decision to rent out this space to Remains Theatre and others, because this is a very expensive piece of real estate” (the Organic owns the Clark Street building in which it performs). Riccio says that renting its main stage allowed Organic to “buy time to redevelop a board and staff and figure out where we were going artistically.”

According to Richard Friedman, general manager of the Organic, “The board made a commitment to come up with money to produce our own product, to bring the Organic back with its own work.” The decision brought the Organic some awkward publicity: it caused Remains to move out of the building in search of a new stage–Riccio says the parting was amicable–and negotiations to break off between the Organic and producer Michael Cullen, who wanted to do a show there next February. Cullen has complained that he is out several thousand dollars in preproduction expenses. Riccio says, “We had entered into discussions, but had not signed or reached any formal agreement.”

In casting a new ensemble, Riccio chose actors who had “aspirations beyond acting . . . actors who were artists”–in the belief that to remain vital, “theater needs an influx of the other arts.” Original music for Titus, by Charles Wilding-White and Destiny Quibble, will be played live by the composers during each performance. In addition, art will be displayed in the theater’s lobby during the run. The exhibit, which Riccio says will enhance the “environment of revenge and murder,” will feature the works of Greg Mowery, Beth Turk, and Jim MacRoberts.

“Theater is supposed to be a viable art form. It should speak to everyone,” says Riccio. “How come kids can afford $25 for a concert, but don’t go to the theater? That tells me that theater isn’t reaching its audience.” He rummages through his files and brings out a flier on Betawulf, a play he adapted and directed last season. “When was the last time you saw a [kid with a] mohawk in a theater audience?” he asks. He smiles, “Betawulf brought in some mohawks.”

So might Organic’s Titus Andronicus. The play runs through November 8 at the Organic, 3319 N. Clark (327-5588 or 853-0505). Admission is $12 and curtain is at 8 PM Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 on Sundays.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.