Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Empty Chair Theatre Titus Andronicus

By • Jul 17th, 2011 • Category: Reviews
Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
Empty Chair Theatre
Theater on the Run
Through July 30th
2:10 with one intermission
$15/$10 Student or Senior
Reviewed July 15th, 2011

I had to laugh when Lavinia was obliged to carry her father’s severed hand in her teeth. Why use her teeth and not her hands? Well, Lavinia no longer had any hands at that point. They were lopped off by the two guys who raped her. And they also cut out her tongue. That way she couldn’t reveal their identities.

So there she is, center stage with this fake hand smeared with fake blood dangling out of her mouth. She reminded me of a woebegone bloodhound (oops — a bit of a pun there); anyway a woebegone bloodhound forlornly bearing a saliva-slimed bedroom slipper. And what would be so funny about Lavinia’s situation? I don’t know. Now I’m getting embarrassed. Maybe you’d have to be there and see for yourself to understand. I fear I’m just making things worse ….

In any event, you are perhaps thinking Titus Andronicus, the tragedy in which Lavinia plays such an important part, is a bit much. You’d be wrong there. Titus is not a bit much. It’s a lot much.

To answer any question you may have about this severed hand: the father, the eponymous Titus, had his hand cut off as ransom for two of his sons’ lives. Then, of course, the evil emperor Saturninus reneged on the deal. Upon receiving the bloody hand, he sent it back along with the two sons’ severed heads. By the way, when the emperor’s evil wife’s two sons rape Lavinia, they use her murdered husband’s corpse as a sort of kinky coital accessory.

Believe it or not Titus, Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, was his most popular play during his lifetime — boffo at the box office, lines around the block. The roof of the Globe Theatre burned up during a mishap midway through the premier of Henry VIII. The company did the obvious thing: they revived Titus to raise money for a replacement roof. Shakespeare, just a beginner in 1590, did some market research. Londoners loved to see dogs tearing bulls or bears to pieces. They loved to see public executioners tearing condemned prisoners to pieces. And they loved their revenge tragedies. Many successful, big name playwrights of the time wrote revenge tragedies, each more ghastly and gory than the one that had opened the preceding week. Shakespeare managed to out-ghastly and out-gory such (largely forgotten) greats as Kyd, Tourneur, Webster, Middleton, Marston and Shirley.

At present, Titus vies for the “Shakespeare’s least popular play” title. The mid-20th Century celebrity poet and all-round literary brahmin T.S. Eliot called it “One of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.” Eliot’s anathema has stuck.

But now and then a group of actors will take the Titus challenge: Let’s see if we can pump some life into this corpse-strewn slasher drama. The current local contender attempting this feat is the Empty Chair Theatre Company of Arlington. The group is young and eager. From the look of them I’d say that no one in the Titus cast comes close to 30. The amazing thing about the ensemble is their diction. Most of them speak Shakespeare’s cantankerous iambic pentameter blank verse with admirable clarity and expression. I saw some Empty Chair work a couple of years ago. Then too the delivery was admirable. Artistic director Elizabeth Nearing has apparently made rigorous training in speaking classical theater language her mission. Titus director Julia Sears has certainly excelled at the task.

Her actors do not ridicule this ridiculous story. They play it with earnest intensity. In the title role Danny Cackley is burdened with a lot of ranting. Returning victoriously to Rome from two decades of fighting the Goths, Titus laments that he has lost 21 (!) of his sons on the battlefields. Then, in a fit of pique, he stabs and kills one of the remaining sons. Throughout the explosions and lulls of rant, Cackley manages a subtle swelling and subsiding rhythm. His words are always clear, and sometimes they are even poignant. Well, a little poignant.

Even more burdened with verbal fury is Shunan Chu as Aaron, the empress’ slave and lover. Let it suffice that Aaron does a lot of bad deeds. The bad deeds he doesn’t do he incites others to carry out for him. As he’s about to die, he speaks of two regrets: 1. that he may have inadvertently done something virtuous at some time of other, and 2. that he didn’t do more villainy. Chu is a fiery actor. He somehow projects limitless turpitude with a tools that range from sneering and wheedling to raving and raging. Motivation? Forget about it. Like Iago in Othello, Aaron just … well, he just worships evil or something and that’s all there is to it. Chu carries the criminal sociopath syndrome off with an oddly authoritative charisma.

Mark Meixell, as the emperor Saturninus, conveys a dangerous paranoid hysteric disposition. He employs an odd staccato manner of speaking, sometimes loud and fast, sometimes quiet and a bit slower, but always sinister and scary. As the empress, Elizabeth Officer does a femme fatale number — not very original but very clearly spoken. As luckless Lavinia, Amalia Camperlengo does the ravaged victim scenes well enough. Earlier, in school-girl miniskirt, she looks kind of desperate, with not much to lose. If costume designer Megan Spatz could have given her something classy to wear, the sense of loss would be sharper.

Big professional companies need about 30 actors to do Titus effectively. That, in addition to the play’s slaughter house weirdness, is one reason why Titus is not often revived. Empty Chair, making do with 19 actors, creates some unavoidable confusion when cast members play two or three roles. Also, various women unconvincingly play men. Creating further puzzlement are inexplicable musical bits — a folksong lullaby here, some pop-style ballads there. Irony? Serious attempt to underscore this or that theme? I didn’t get the significance of the spurts of singing. They came across as pointless little riddles. Or maybe they were gratuitous talent show bits, like old-time entr’actes meant to give audiences more than their money’s worth on a something-for-everyone basis. 

I noticed that I was not the only audience member to laugh at one or another of Titus’ preposterous grotesqueries. But the show is not a campy production. Humor is accidental. Though I did notice some intentional humor in the Empty Chair web site promotion of Titus: “Kid friendly — no, dog friendly — no, non smoking — yes!”

A Note From The Director

What draws me to the characters of Titus Andronicus is that they do bad things for good reasons. This play is about people who are trying to love their families but all they know is how to do is kill. They were taught by their society that vengeance will heal their wounds but their tragedy is that they can never find peace through blood or justice through revenge.

One of the sole survivors of the play promises to “teach you how to knit again these broken limbs again into one body.” The promise he makes for Rome, but with death, rape, and mutilation, the body becomes the battleground for a ferocious war between Titus Andronicus and Tamora, Queen of the Goths. However, the deluge of their carnage is not the result of villainy. Their bloodlust is simply rooted in the bond they have for their pack.

Julia Sears


  • Saturninus: Mark Meixell
  • Bassianus: Dan DeMarco
  • Aemilius: Emily Strong
  • Titus Andronicus: Danny Cackley
  • Marcus Andronicus: Jay Myers
  • Lucius Andronicus: Michael Toperzer
  • Young Lucius: Elena Robertson
  • Lavinia: Amalia Camperlengo
  • Mutius: Emily Strong
  • Quintus: Olivia Myers
  • Martius: Emily Strong
  • Publius: Dan DeMarco
  • Sempronius: Emily Strong
  • Caius: Olivia Myers
  • Tamora: Elizabeth Officer
  • Alarbus: Amilia Camperlengo
  • Demetrius: Mark Tucker
  • Chiron: Jeremy Tuohy
  • Aaron: Shunan Chu


  • Director: Julia Sears
  • Dramaturg: Isabel Smith-Bernstein
  • Production Stage Manager: Devrie Guerrero
  • Costume Designer: Megan Spatz
  • Scenic Designer: Bryce Cutler
  • Prop Master and Scenic Artist: Daniel Dobrosielski
  • Lighting Designer: Madison Lane
  • House Manager: Rebecca Speas

Disclaimer: Empty Chair Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.

2 Responses »

  1. “Earlier, in school-girl miniskirt, she looks kind of desperate, with not much to lose. If costume designer Megan Spatz could have given her something classy to wear, the sense of loss would be sharper.”

    What a disappointing thing to say.

  2. Rape is never acceptable under any circumstance. Mr. Adcock’s comments about the costuming decisions of that scene and the choices of characterization made by the actor and the director appear appropriate. Comments on this article have been closed.