What could be more quintessentially convivial than a Greenwich Village bartender chatting with a regular customer? That's how John Farmanesh-Bocca and Jack Stehlin came to know each other.
Now, at a remove of 15 years and 3,000 miles, they've reunited to put on a play that is one of the least convivial dramas ever written: "Titus Andronicus."
With Farmanesh-Bocca as adaptor and director, Stehlin plays the titular Roman warrior as a traumatized American general back from fighting not the Goths but the Taliban. William Shakespeare's double-barreled revenge tragedy comes already stocked with rape, limb-shearings, head-loppings and an unspeakable climactic culinary triumph. By bringing it all back home, this joint production of Farmanesh-Bocca's Not Man Apart — Physical Theatre Ensemble and Stehlin's Circus Theatricals may strike audiences at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as even more harrowing than the Bard's original.
It's titled "Titus Redux" to signify the extreme liberties taken with the text and its waking-nightmare staging. Although the bulk of the lines are straight from Shakespeare, Farmanesh-Bocca, who also plays Titus' nemesis, Aaron, has invented flashback scenes that return the general to the heat of combat.
Stehlin recently finished four seasons on Showtime's "Weeds," ending with the death of his character, Roy Till, a tightly wound gay federal narcotics agent. He shares top-billing with Brenda Strong, who plays Mary Alice, the mostly unseen narrator on " Desperate Housewives." She's playing the formidable Queen Tamora, her first stage role since starring in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Much Ado About Nothing" seven years ago at the Montana Shakespeare Company.
Margeaux J. London, who plays the piteous Lavinia, may not be a familiar name, but as Jennifer Landon she won three consecutive Daytime Emmy Awards on "As the World Turns." She says her name change, which starts with this show, is not meant to distance herself from her father, Michael Landon, who died when she was 7, but has personal resonance. The "Bonanza" and "Little House on the Prairie" star was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz, but his daughter says he considered London as a professional name before picking Landon.
Not Man Apart emphasizes dance as a key feature of its experimental approach, and dancers' knee pads are mandatory for Stehlin, London and two young actors who play Tamora's sons. The director also interpolates songs, with Graham Nash's "Our House" serving much the same function as "God Bless America" did in "The Deer Hunter." Nine video interludes help set the tone and drive the narrative and characterizations.
In the most radical change from Shakespeare's original, in which Tamora begins as Titus' prisoner of war and quickly becomes the empress of Rome, Farmanesh-Bocca envisions the two characters as an American husband and wife. "Titus Redux" becomes the story of a marriage that goes horribly wrong and an attempt to grapple with what a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq is doing not only to military families but also to America as a whole.
Farmanesh-Bocca, brimming with friendly energy even after a full day's rehearsal, said he began with the idea that "a country that gets divided, that has mistrust, begins to devour itself." And in today's fragmented America, it bothered him that most citizens live as if the nation were not at war. "We've been asked to disassociate from it and go about our lives and purchase things, and forget about blood being spilled," said the director, whose older brother is a military doctor who has served in Iraq. To remedy that, "I'm taking [audiences] on a journey of madness with Titus. This is essentially a nightmare."
The show springs from a chance reconnection between Farmanesh-Bocca and Stehlin at a Westside health club.
They'd met in the mid-1990s, when Stehlin was near the end of a long run of Shakespearean supporting roles for New York's Public Theater. There, his credits included a 1981 "Henry IV, Part I" with Mandy Patinkin as Hotspur and, lower in the credits, a bunch of up-and-comers including John Goodman, Val Kilmer and Stehlin's Juilliard classmate, Kevin Spacey. Stehlin went on to play opposite Kevin Kline in "Henry V," and with Al Pacino and Martin Sheen in "Julius Caesar," while winning leading roles on regional stages.
Farmanesh-Bocca, who had just graduated from New York University's theater program and was working at a bar near the Public, was all ears as they talked about the acting life and actor training.