Updating Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” by placing the action in a modern military setting provides an urgency to the gore and inhuman atrocities that define one of the Bard’s earliest tragedies. A rape that leads to severed limbs, murder, incest and cannibalism — all of it to defend the honor of family and country — has considerable impact in “Titus Redux,” a sprawling multimedia interpretation of a 400-year-old play that suffers when its tone is confused but stimulates when the choreography and filmed segments settle into a happy marriage.
John Farmanesh-Bocca, who has applied the “redux” formula to “Pericles” and “Richard III” and directed a straight “Merchant of Venice” for Shakespeare Santa Monica, goes overboard in this adaptation, perhaps not realizing his more focused moments pack more resonance than when he lets the ideas avalanche onto the stage. His greatest strength as a visual conceptualist is as a choreographer, judging by the scenes that bring power to the “Titus” core. Altercations — both realistic and surreal — are his forte.
“Titus” asks a lot of its audience. There’s film, song and dance, speech patterns lifted from Facebook pages, and characters seemingly from the ’70s — that would be the 1570s and the 1970s — interacting with one another. That leap from Shakespeare’s text to modern, casual chit-chat creates a jarring juxtaposition, especially when the transition is from the significant to the mundane.
As Titus, Jack Stehlin (Capt. Roy Till on “Weeds”) is given the heaviest lifting to do. The play opens with Titus marking the death of his son in Afghanistan, his wife Tamora (Brenda Strong) affixing blame solely upon her husband. Her sons Demetrius (Dash Pepin) and Chiron (Vincent Cardinale) side with Tamora, Titus’ daughter, Lavinia (Margeaux J. London), with her father. As the play progresses, Stehlin brings a weathered confidence to Titus when he is depicted on battlefields and as a model member of the army both on film and in live action. He also has the greatest command of Shakespeare’s dialogue.
Nicholas Hormann provides an unwavering support system as Marcus Andronicus, grounding his character in Shakespearean tradition. Brenda Strong, too, lifts Tamora when speaking in olde English, as her distaste for her husband rules her every move. Farmanesh-Bocca’s Aaron and London’s Lavinia are the most modern of the characters, with Aaron a Muslim and Lavinia a cheerleader. There’s little clarity, though, in the rationale behind those choices.
By the time the play nears its close — with Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin taking on the characters of Revenge, Murder and Rape and the ensemble singing along to Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Our House” — it becomes a bit much to process. Deciding which elements are real in the physical sense and which are occurring in some character’s head can wear down the viewer, making the more simply staged moments — awaiting an attack on the battlefield, prison camp torture, a murder — the ones that resonate strongest.