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Thursday, March 30, 2006

I watched a bit of Julie Taymor's operatic Titus Andronicus adaptation, Titus. I've been pondering her choice to cast the reedy Alan Cumming as Saturninus and give him a little Hitler hair flop. As cast and played, from the git-go we know he's an evil munchkin. So it's hard to understand why Titus Andronicus chooses him over the adorable, deep-eyed Bassianus to be the next emperor.

Now the question is: would it have been better to cast someone adorable as Saturninus, or at least someone strong and leaderly, so we can understand why Titus would choose him? And then we can be with Titus's point of view as Saturninus's evil comes out.

I'm not sure if that would have been better, though. Is the point of the play that Titus makes a terrible mistake based on his blind adherence to old Roman custom, and that is his downfall -- his tragic flaw -- all through the play? He simply does not consider whether Saturninus or Bassianus would make the better Emperor, he just chooses the older son.

If you are telling the story of Hitler's rise, for example... it seems amazing that people would follow the guy. Charlie Chaplin was not the only person to see how ridiculous Hitler was, with his angry yelling and his little mustache, and yet one of the most sophisticated nations fell in love with him. Do you try to cast a charismatic actor, so we'll see what the Germans saw? Or do you cast an actor who will make the insanity clear?

In a B story that we just junked on one of our "Exposure" scripts, we introduced a woman who'd turn out to be a pathological user in the last act. In the first version, it was clear from the beginning that she was a nasty piece of work. In the second draft, we did our best to present her to the audience the way she was coming across to our main character, and only gradually reveal the nasty side.

My question to you, class is: is it always better to save the reveal? Or do you sometimes want to warn the audience in advance that the hero is making a big mistake? And if so, what do you achieve that way?

4 Comments:

I could think of situations where I might choose either possibility.

And if so, what do you achieve that way?

It could create a heightened desire to see how the hero will react when he learns what we, the audience, already know.

Finding out when the hero does lets you perhaps share his shock but may not let you enjoy his reaction as fully as you would if you'd been anticipating it.

Not to mention, is there anything better than yelling "are you an idiot" at the TV?

By Blogger Mackey, at 12:05 AM  

That's a great question, Alex, and I think clever casting is a big part of when/how you reveal the true nature of some characters.

For example, if one were to cast Brad Dourif in the role of the cheery new next door neighbour who works as a veterinarian and loves kids, I'd begin to suspect almost instantly that he's really some sort of psychotic freak -- and I would expect the story to reveal that by the second or third act out.

However, if you were to cast say...Jeffrey Pierce in the role, well, revealing his sinister side, either slowly or in one shocking scene would totally blow me away.

So, find the right actor for the part and blow me -- away, that is. :-)

By Blogger Kelly J. Compeau, at 12:09 AM  

When I was a kid, I met a woman who'd grown up in Hitler's Germany. And I asked her that question: Why did people follow him? What was the appeal?

Her answer was quite interesting.

She compared his appeal to that of Dustin Hoffman. Woman thought he was "cute". So when he screamed in those speeches, it had an impact. If this stuff makes him angry, it must be really bad.

There was even a rather frigthening moment when she spoke of his "watery blue eyes" that I saw the spell falling over her once again.

Would it work if you cast Hitler that way? I don't know. But it would be quite chilling.

As for TITUS ANDRONICUS, I think it's pretty clear from the text that the audience is supposed to know Titus is making a mistake. And in this case casting against type wouldn't work. Most likely one of the reason Shakespeare returned to the basic idea (parental attitudes toward their children) in KING LEAR with quite different results.

By Blogger Robot Porter, at 8:11 AM  

Marketing will change your strategy, too—thanks to T2's staggering hype, everyone knew when they bought their ticket that Schwarzenegger was a good terminator, so that reveal was an empty one. Since we never know how much is going to be shown in commercials, selecting which reveals to sacrifice to the marketing mammoth is a choice battle.

I love it when actors are cast against type and the writer feints by turning the "good guy" actor into a villainous scum by saving the reveal. In fact, it's so unsettling that I start thinking... my god, if he's not the good guy, then anything could happen!

Generally, I'd say save the reveal. Although I do agree with Mackey, too—if can be a hell of a lot of fun to have an interesting character to watch (someone really angry or unpredictable) and tip off the audience early who the bad guy is and make us bite our knuckles until the showdown.

Side note: I saw a stage version of Titus with Brian Cox. In that adaptation, the Romans were dressed in dusty, dirty clothing and my drama professor told me later, "The whole point to Titus is that the Romans were the most civilized people for their time. They had irrigation and city planning and ironed their own clothes. These people weren't barbarians, so when they begin doing barbaric acts, it's meant to be that much more shocking."

By Blogger Ross Pruden, at 12:39 PM  

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