(X-posted to my personal LJ and bard_in_boston)
I've seen three productions of TItus Andronicus in my lifetime. The first was at the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern twenty years ago. The other two were the Femina Shakespeare production at BU last fall, and the new one at the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club. Both of the college productions were much more innovative than the professional one (although the latter was perfectly well-performed), and also did not result in a disastrous first date like the AST one did*.
Titus is a tough play. At its core, this tragedy is the story of how a black man and an independent woman/single mother destroy a family of white folks (Mitt Romney thinks it's one of the Bard's histories). It's the only Shakespeare play with rape at the core of the plot, and while that event takes place off-stage, it's described in detail. And there's maiming (on-stage and off), blood, and not a whole lot of great speechifying.
But there's a lot a good production can mine. The BU one focused on the gender issues and the violence. Harvard ably mined some of the dark humor in the story (including a glorious visual pun) without underplaying the actual tragedy or pretending that almost anyone in the play is heroic. It's largely straightforward -- no cross-casting, only one dropped character (Quintus) and although the Roman soldiers use guns instead of swords (mostly), the setting still feels like ancient Rome. And it's a Rome where there are few likable people, from the "barbarians" just defeated to the general with no ability to show mercy to the brothers whose battle for control of Rome initiate everything.
One of things I particularly loved was the portrayal of one of the few exceptions, Lavinia. The other productions I've seen tended to go with the text, treating her as a naif whose sweet innocence is ruined and who loses all interest in life after being raped and maimed. Alice Abracen (all names taken from their website; hopefully, nothing is misspelled) plays Lavinia as tough in the first third, with a snide look and tone to her voice that suggests that that constant use of her as a prize for any random consul or emperor of Rome doesn't exactly thrill her. It makes her rape and maiming even more powerful, and afterwards, she conveys a sense that she wants revenge as much as her father does (and that she knows he's going to slit her throat at the end, having now satisfied the one thing that was driving her).
Early on, I was ready to declare Marcus the big flop -- Aaron Graham-Horowitz played him as foppish and weak, and while that's always a part of the character, it was so strong that it undercut Marcus's "my niece, that flies away so fast" speech, generally the best speech anyone other than Aaron gets in the play. But he redeems himself nicely later on, really playing off of Titus nicely, particularly during the "fly" scene (which was great here -- it's generally one of the best moments in any production, as it so quickly moves between being laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking as you realize just how much Titus has lost it).
I've never seen a bad Aaron, and Spencer Horne doesn't break that streak. There's just something about gleeful villainy that brings out good performances.
Pretty much every other performance is worthwhile, too, but Caleb Thompson's oh-so-haughty Saturninus and Sara Lytle's literally gothy take on the Goth queen Tamora make wonderful foils for the rest of the cast, and there are some nice staging moments surrounding their characters (they're generally the only two who are seen on the balcony) that establish a nice class disparity between them and the rest of Rome.
There's actual blood spurting (not at Evil Dead: The Musical levels, though), and the violent final scene is brutal; for all the humor and character bits, this is still Titus, of course.
Oh, for anyone wondering about the pun, I'll spoiler-cut it (in case anyone local is planning on seeing it this weekend):
[Spoiler (click to open)]
When the messenger comes to tell Titus that Bassianus has been killed, thus revealing that Aaron lied and that Titus cut his own hand off for nothing, the general clearly snaps and calmly pulls his gun and shoots the messenger before sending Lucius off. Yeah, it's a small pun, but I enjoyed it.
Obviously, this is a college production (and it's free!), so if you see it next weekend, take that into account. There's not exactly a lot of money spent on scenery or costumes (although the '70s era punk outfits given to Demetrius and Chiron are nifty). And yes, that's an inherent problem with Titus (or Caesar, or the histories), because you'll have twenty-year-olds playing three times their age. I'm okay with that, but if you need the veneer of a "professional" stage, you probably want to look elsewhere.
*Seriously, people. I cannot stress enough how bad an idea TA is as a choice for a first date.