Organic Theater Company

Thomas Riccio, the artistic director of the Organic Theater, says he wants to bring performance art and traditional theater closer together. He envisions a hybrid art form that will rely more heavily on visual images and symbolism, and provide an alternative to the naturalism that dominates Chicago stages.

Riccio’s production of Titus Andronicus displays his fondness for performance art. It’s a high-concept show full of arresting images. Titus, a Roman general, returns from battle with prisoners dressed like IRA terrorists. One character makes his first speech while standing in a spotlight, holding a microphone, like a stand-up comedian. Saturninus, the young brat crowned emperor, plays the trumpet.

Of course, the most memorable images belong to Shakespeare himself, who inserted such outlandish violence into the script that many scholars can’t believe he is really the author.

But Riccio has seized on these images with such enthusiasm that the violence nearly overwhelms everything else in this production. Posters for the show bear the slogan, “Justice, Loyalty, Honor, Meat, Blood,” and below the title there is a warning label alerting potential viewers that the play “contains scenes of graphic violence that may offend some audience members.”

The carnage begins early in the first act when Titus, in keeping with tradition, orders one of the prisoners hacked apart and sacrificed to the gods. The prisoner selected is a son of Tamora, the captured queen of the Goths, who begs Titus for the young man’s life. But ritual is ritual, and soon a soldier appears carrying a heart dripping blood.

This murder sets off a chain reaction of revenge. After Tamora marries the Roman emperor (don’t ask, there’s no plausible explanation for it), she allows two of her other sons to rape Lavinia, Titus’s daughter. Instead of just killing her to keep her quiet, however, the sons cut out her tongue and chop off her hands. Although the actual rape is shown through shadows on the back wall, Riccio derives the maximum horror out of the act by having Lavinia stagger across the stage bare-breasted, vomiting, and holding her bloody stumps in front of her.

It gets worse. Titus cuts off one of his own hands (Live! Onstage!), two of his sons are beheaded, and two of Tamora’s sons are butchered. In the ultimate act of revenge, Titus hacks up Tamora’s sons and cooks the meat for their mother to eat. While the audience is spared the culinary details, Titus appears in a blood-soaked apron and chef’s hat, like some sort of deranged Frugal Gourmet.

Now it’s true, all of this gore is specified by Shakespeare in the script, but some of the scenes are so absurdly grotesque that they verge on comedy. For example, a messenger delivers the decapitated heads of his sons to Titus, along with the hand Titus chopped off in an attempt to appease the emperor. When Titus stops grieving for his sons and vows revenge, he parcels out the carnage: “Come, brother, take a head,” he says. “And in this hand the other will I bear. And, Lavinia, thou shalt be employ’d in these arms: Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.”

So he puts his bloody severed hand in her mouth, and Lavinia walks across the stage looking like a zombie from Night of the Living Dead. It’s ridiculous, sure, and the audience titters, but it’s in the script. How else are you supposed to play that scene?

Even after assigning Shakespeare his share of the blame, there’s some left over for Riccio. The images he has created for this production are certainly exciting, and they often elicit a visceral response from the audience. (One man who saw the show complained that he had nightmares afterwards about severed limbs and bloody stumps.)

But these images are detached from the work itself. Like a performance artist, Riccio is stressing visual communication. The blood and the butchery, for example, obviously say something about the violence in our own society. The problem is that the images are not employed in the service of some overarching interpretation of the text. They exist as isolated displays of imagination that submerge Shakespeare beneath the director’s private agenda of concerns.

Still, anyone who sees this production will never forget Titus Andronicus. Riccio strives relentlessly for speed and energy. He has gutted the theater for this production (how appropriate), and built a broad, deep stage that provides ample playing space. Set designer James Card leaves that space clear, dividing it only with tall black curtains that the actors slide into various configurations. The electronic music, composed by Destiny Quibble and Charles Wilding-White, provides an ominous, eerie background sound that intensifies the mayhem on stage.

And many of the performances are impressive, despite the absence of Equity actors. David Rommel, a newcomer to Chicago, brings a strong, elegant voice to his portrayal of Titus, and Carmen Roman plays Tamora, his nemesis, with a flamboyance and grace befitting a queen. Stephan Benet Turner exudes hatred and bitterness as Tamora’s lover, Aaron the Moor, while Steve Drukman, as her husband, Saturninus, cleverly takes the opposite approach–he is a pompous, ineffectual wimp easily manipulated by his wife.

When Stuart Gordon founded the Organic Theater 16 years ago, his primary goal was to present challenging, inventive plays, and Riccio certainly has embraced that ideal. Titus Andronicus suffers mostly from an excess of zeal, which is the least offensive fault a play can display. Some of Riccio’s ideas backfire badly. The messenger who delivers the hand and the severed heads to Titus wears a fluorescent vest and a whistle around his neck, and holds out a receipt for someone to sign while Titus is embracing the remains of his sons. It’s funny, but wrong.

Yet, such images, while capricious and arbitrary, are certainly inventive. They may not be organic to the interpretation of the play, but they are pure Organic.