Violence Begets... Smiles?

12/12/2011 04:00 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2012

Sometimes I wonder about how I react to theater. Who walks out of Titus Andronicus with a huge smile on their face? I do. And my friends do. Of course, I know why I reacted in this manner. Allow me to explain. After the Public Theater's production the other night I was beaming ear to ear in response to the production, not the play. The play itself includes, as many people had told me, literally buckets of blood. But the way that this was handled made me appreciative of the staging without distracting me from the play itself. Last week I talked about how fight choreography can make or break my experience of a production, but this week I would like to talk about the expression of violence on stage.

This week I was reading Sarah Kane's Blasted and remembering my first, and only, experience actually seeing a Sarah Kane play. I was in Ireland, and the production was Phaedra's Love. It was done in the round, and I remember being uncomfortable mostly because I could see several of my friends having violent reactions to the play. I also remember having no concept of whether the production was "good" or not; I honestly couldn't tell. I knew that I did not like the play, which is simply a matter of personal preference. I understand why some people really appreciate this work, and I fully believe that it should be staged, just don't expect me to accompany you to see it.

Part of me reacts negatively to the literal, almost Sesame Street acting out of such violence for two reasons. The first is that I believe that theater is meant to activate our power of imagination, and such representation of a traumatic action is often better evoked imaginatively than literally performed. And also, these moments approach reality, but are themselves always representations of the actions in and of themselves. This last part is particularly important, because I cannot imagine what it would be like for a woman who had actually experienced sexual violence to watch such an act approximated on stage, just as I worry about the psychological effects of the actors performing such actions. I understand that Kane means to reveal the silence on this topic, but there is a specific audience who might actually be traumatized by this theater, which I don't like at all.

What does all of this have to do with Titus Andronicus? Actually, quite a bit. My experience with Phaedra's Love has made me wary of going to see shows that involve a great deal of onstage violence, as I'm more concerned about the affective responses of the audience than the performance itself. Yet, I have to applaud the Public's production precisely because of their responsible approach to the violent subject matter, and their excellent staging of these scenes.

How do they accomplish this? The answer is a continuation of part of my fight choreography discussion from last week, in the sense that it never felt too real. The mechanisms of the staging are revealed early and often, which allows the audience to suspend disbelief to the amount that they feel comfortable doing. Because it was staged in a thrust, I could see the reactions of many of the audience members behind the action. I have never seen so many audience members with hands over their mouths, completely taken in by the emotional affect of the piece.

This led me to say some statements I never thought I would hear myself saying, such as: "They did the rape really well!" Taken out of context, my enthusiasm is suspect... but I was honestly excited by the agency allowed to the audience members to drop in where they felt comfortable, or to remove themselves from the fiction should they not.

I watched with full appreciation of the atrocities happening to Titus and his family, but without becoming so lost in the violence and grief that I was unable to move on. I smiled because their staging was so good, and because, from a theatrical standpoint, buckets of blood and violence can be exciting to watch under the right circumstances. (Another example is Martin McDonaugh's hilarious The Lieutenant of Inishmore staged on Broadway several years ago which used 14 gallons of fake blood every night.) So if you see smiling faces walking out of the doors of the Public Theater after Titus Andronicus, you don't necessarily have to be concerned. Hopefully they're just having a moment of theatrical appreciation for a well staged play, which I encourage you to go and see for yourself.