Ralph Fiennes's recent movie version of Coriolanus is set in "a city called Rome" - a blasted hellhole that looks more like 1990s Belgrade. It allows Fiennes to contemporize the action; what's more, it sidesteps the spectacle of bloodbaths in togas. Similar motivations compelled director Pug Bujeaud to transport Theater Artists Olympia's Titus Andronicus to a biker turf war in the ‘70s. (It certainly wasn't to simplify costuming.) The Roman club, for whom Titus is a disciplined sergeant-at-arms, is waging a murderous feud against a rival gang, the Goths - but don't expect guy-liner. This stage is overflowing with denim, black leather, jailhouse tattoos and heaving cleavage.
I attended one of Bujeaud's auditions, and while I saw some good work, I knew Olympia actors had a long way to go to understand biker subculture. I feared an iambic pentameter version of Wild Hogs. Six weeks later, I accept the conceit, and that speaks of passion and dedication from the top down. Faithful readers will know I'm a tough sell when it comes to moving Shakespeare, but this adaptation works so well you'd think the Bard intended it all along.
More obscure than most Shakespearian stories, this one might require spoiler warnings; it's not often staged, and few have seen Julie Taymor's 1999 movie adaptation (from which Bujeaud borrows a few arty touches). Suffice it to say Titus and his daughter Lavinia are treated abominably by both the Romans and the Goths, so he declares ruthless vengeance on both. From then on, it's inevitable that bodies will litter the stage, and when they do, it's both horrible and weirdly cathartic. Imagine an AIP biker flick directed by John Carpenter in his angry, young turk phase, and you're on the right gory track. Cue Jacqui Martin's Halloween makeup effects.
Brian Hatcher plays Titus with authority and purpose. Priscilla Zal is note-perfect as Lavinia, stealing even her wordless scenes. Samantha Camp's earthy turn as Tamora, Queen of the Goths, kicks the plot into gear when her son bites the dust in Act I. Brian Jansen (Saturninus) is almost unrecognizable behind a gray scrub of a beard; he's one of our premier shape shifters. Mark Peterson does his finest work yet as Aaron, a "Moor" who exacts his own retribution for a lifetime of racist atrocities. Wisely, Bujeaud moves one of Aaron's curses from early Act V to the end of the play, which gives the show a howling emotional exclamation point. Matt Ackerman's solo guitar is a tension-raising presence from minute one.
Victorians felt the same way about Titus's pre-Jacobean carnage that Baptist ministers felt about Doom. No less a critic than Harold Bloom called it "a poetic atrocity ... an explosion of rancid irony." Bujeaud herself says Titus may be "Shakespeare's most reviled play."
After this production, however, it might just be one of your favorites.
[Theater Artists Olympia, Titus Andronicus, $12, 7:30 p.m. Thurs. - Sat., 1:55 p.m. Sun. through Aug. 11, 1925 Miller Ave. NE, Olympia, 360.357.3471]