Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Object of Art: The Nightmare

Titus Andronicus is a play about family, power, grief, and revenge.  This play is a nightmare.
Tamora, Queen of the Goths, is brought to Rome as a prisoner of longtime War-General, Titus Andronicus.  However, within 4 pages of the opening, she is made the Emperess of Rome as the wife of new Emperor Saturninus.  An ever-plummeting cycle of vengeance leads to a scene in Part Two of this, Shakespeare's earliest tragedy in which Tamora disguises herself as the embodiment of Revenge and visits Titus, promising destruction on his foes.  Her sons, Demetrius and Chiron are disguised as Murder and Rapine (an alternate word form of Rape).  I have labeled this scene (Act V, Scene 1) as The Nightmare, and have decided to stage it in a way that suggests that perhaps some or all of it takes place in Titus' mad-addled mind.

A major element of the scene is the disguise in which Tamora and her two sons, Demetrius and Chiron visit Titus in his home.  I have used the animal imagery within the play to conceptualize the Goths in this moment.  A crow, a wolf, and a stag were suggested to our Props Master, Charles Fisher, as starting points for these Nightmare figures.  I brought images to share; these animals in moments of attack and rage.  I found a fantastic deer skull that had been painted black with gold highlights.  In the production meeting we spoke through ideas on how the human actors might use these as a disguise in some sort of mask or through puppetry.

We decided that Tamora, as Revenge, would become an abnormally large crow that haunts Titus; mounting a wing on one shoulder, a crow's skull in one hand, the other arm operating the remaining wing.  In early literature (Greek, Roman, Shakespeare), birds serve as harbingers of evil, and omens of foreboding.  We thought it an appropriate fit.  We attached Demetrius, as Murder, to the wolf, as he was the elder brother; the first to strike and kill Titus' son-in-law.  And we then suggested that Chiron, as Rapine, would wear a deer-skull; the stag drew significant parallels to Shakespeare's cuckolding metaphors where sexual deviancy was literalized with sprouting horns.

Charles drew some sketches to give me an idea how these disguises might look on the actor's body and head.  From there, we finalized the look of each element.  We explored the idea of having Tamora use an albino crow head and wings, but found that it actually led to a resemblance of a dove; not exactly the horrifying bird I wanted to present as Revenge.  But the white wolf was certainly a possibility.  I felt strongly that I wanted the deer skull to be painted black, as in the original image I had presented.  With the gold accents, it tied nicely into the royal Roman family to which these brothers had been adopted.  With the white wolf, and the black stag-skull, we decided on black crow wings, but a white crow skull that would be painted black at the beak with a gold accent.  I was excited to see that all the elements were tied together into a cohesive design.  Charles created renderings on his computer, incorporating the established costume design of Lindsay Pape into the final looks.

When the final renderings were approved, Charles began to construct the Nightmare Disguises.  He created the structure of the wolf and stag heads on bike helmets, using a moldable plastic that, when heated became flexible, and as it cooled, maintained shape.  He then glued a synthetic fabric (made to look like fur) to the outside of the wolf head.  He painted each to match the specifications of the final renderings; also creating wearable shoulder-cowls to match.  If you look closely, you can see the blood-soaked drool hanging from Murder's flashing teeth; a very specific, artistic touch that speaks to Charles' attention to detail.

We tried the heads and cowls onto the actors for a publicity photo-call and what you see is the result of that session.  As we work through the rehearsal process, Michael Frishman (Demetrius, right) and Eric Weiman (Chiron, left) are working with these masks to create a truly horrifying moment for Titus' Nightmare.  The final moment onstage speaks to the fascinating collaboration of the theatre: from Director to Props Master, taking input from the Costume Designer and working with the actors.  Final elements from the Lighting Designer and Sound Designer will combine with what takes place on a stage created by a Set Designer.  And that is the unique and special relationship between theatre artists and audience; I can't wait for you to see it all come together in the park.

Titus Andronicus opens June 27th in Elmwood Park at 8pm.  Free Admission.

Good Weekend Gentles.
Vincent CB

For more information on opening weekend of Titus Andronicus and Twelfth Night on June 20th, visit

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