Barbarism, cold-blooded revenge and arrowheads could be the theme of a top grossing movie or it could be the plot of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" currently onstage at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater.
Director Aaron Cromie's over-the-top production is in repertory at PST with the gentler tale of "Twelve Night." But if you are in a bloody mood, Titus has garroting, torture, dismemberment, and, of course, the odd head in a jar. Hunger gamers, eat your hearts out.
Cromie is also a mask and puppet designer and some of the characters are animations he built himself. Carnage is appropriated to some of these creatures and some is depicted in silouetted cutouts. The craft effects are somehow just as gruesome as the more realistic bloodletting perhaps this is because the ensemble lends so much humanity and humor, past the shock value.
The play's authorship has often been contested and Titus is one thorny script. Language scholars agree that Shakespeare's in not the only hand in this theatrical potboiler. It's both Shakespearean and a theater-of-blood romp. PST's production is streamlined to a two-hour thriller, with no intermission and Cromie, wisely, plays it for as many laughs as gasps. Things got off to a skittish start on opening night, a few line flubs and pacing issues, but soon enough, they started to cook.
Titus the conqueror returns to Rome victorious after vanquishing the barbarians and capturing Tamora, the Goth queen and her lover Aaron, the Moor. Titus turns down the emperor's crown in favor of the venomous Saturninus after which all hell breaks loose.
Rob Kahn's Titus is faux-mannered and he crafts it on many levels, including going for cheap laughs. Shakespearean eloquence in the play is in short supply, the most famous being when Marcus delivers Lavinia, Titus daughter, to him after she has been maimed and raped. Kahn, lends unfussy tragic dimension here. Also knowing how to deliver a lethal comic-tragic sword is Caroline Crocker, as the most vengeful and electrifying Tamora. Her garb looks as though she's escaped from "Threepenny Opera" with a garter hitched dress and cabaret whore makeup.
Lesley Berkowitz's Lavinia, her hands lopped off and tongue ripped out, expresses so much horror through the mini-me puppet that the effect is poignantly horrible. Jered McLenigan rolls out the effete Saturninus a la Caligula and his forced lustfulness for Lavinia and Tamora seems overdone, but McLenigan is able to make him into chillingly sardonic despot and clown in equal measure.
Davon Williams' portrays Aaron, who sires a baby with Tamora who is now Saturninus' bride and wants to have it killed to retain all her power. This subplot is just dropped in the pocket by the excellent Williams, whose Bardian cadences are so polished.
Johnny Smith also floated superb diction as Marcus, Titus' devoted brother and he was especially good at the gallows humor. Ian Sullivan is the quietly heroic as Lucius.
Lisi Stoessel's fine set design is a very Canterbury wooden arch with red velvet mini prosceniums, which acts as the puppet gallery for the Roman Senate. Natalia de la Torre's costumes are campy and a grab-bag of French commedia del'arte drag with players in French court make-up.
The silhouette effect runs out of steam quickly, except for one gruesomely funny sequence, but the gallery of puppets popping out of the arches for various antics works beautifully -- credit puppeteers Kienan McCartney, Eileen Tarquinio, Andrew Webb, Victoria Rose Bonito, and Cromie, who keep everything in deadly motion.
continuing through May 20
Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre
215.496.8001 | phillyshakespeare.org
for performance information