If you’ve always thought the Bard a bore, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s extravagantly theatrical Titus Adronicus should change your mind about theater’s most revered dramatist. Director Aaron Cromie turns the Bard’s bold work into a spectacularly gleeful bloodbath that is both intense and insanely entertaining.
Shakespeare’s first tragedy has been undervalued and outright denounced by many 20th-century critics. But instead of apologizing for Titus ’ lack of poetic beauty and insight, Cromie embraces its bombastic oratory, perverse sense of humor and appalling violence.
Like Shakespeare’s late-career masterpiece Hamlet , Titus is a revenge tragedy that leaves a shocking number of corpses in its wake. Other than the relatively high body count (and Titus’ 14 murder victims easily trumps Hamlet ’s eight relatively tame deaths), the plays couldn’t be more different. Whereas Hamlet explores the psychological complexities of its title character and the role destiny plays in determining our fate, Titus is an attempt at sheer entertainment from a young playwright hoping to create a box-office hit. Historical accounts indicate that the play was popular with the rowdy Elizabethan audiences that flocked to the first production. Because the play was written by theater’s resident genius, directors often approach Titus with an inappropriate sense of gravitas. Cromie doesn’t make that mistake; the result is one of the season’s most wildly entertaining productions.
Smartly edited to a quick 100 minutes, the action is set in ancient Rome. As the play begins, the Romans—under the leadership of the great warrior Titus Andronicus (Rob Kahn in a shrewd and satisfying portrayal)—have successfully defended Rome against the invading Goths (though we’ll soon see that the Romans are every bit as barbarous). Meanwhile, Saturnius (a deliciously depraved Jered McLenigan) and his brother Bassianus (Davon Williams), sons of the late emperor, are arguing about which of them has claim to their father’s throne. With Titus’ backing, Saturnius prevails. As the new emperor, he announces he’ll make Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Lesley Berkowitz in an effectively pitiable portrayal) his bride. Unfortunately, nobody bothered to ask Lavinia her feelings. So, with the help of her brother, Lavinia elopes with her true love, Bassianus. Perturbed at what he views as a treasonous act, Titus kills his son, an exceptionally stern and surprising response, especially considering that 21 of Titus’ 25 sons were recently killed in the war. Saturnius decides instead to marry the queen of the Goths, Tamora (a fierce Caroline Crocker), who was captured along with her three deplorable sons and her Moor lover, Aaron (portrayed with shocking ruthlessness and utter depravity by the excellent Williams).
Instead of relying heavily on the text to communicate the story (the method usually employed by directors over-enamored with the Bard’s language), Cromie tells the story visually. Utilizing Natalia de la Torre’s spectacular costumes and Maria Shaplin’s creative lighting to create a series of evocative shadow effects, the production employs approximately 40 puppets, including hand puppets with wonderfully detailed facial expressions. That, combined with nearly two gallons of blood, give us a visual feast of mayhem that recalls the gory thrills of Paris’ infamous Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. Exploiting the numerous seat boxes and small doorways in Lisi Stoessel’s smartly functional set that resembles a small chapel, puppets and actors are tortured, maimed, executed and dismembered with alarming regularity. At one point, some are served to unsuspecting guests for dinner.
No director in Philly exudes as much charm as Aaron Cromie. Highly regarded for his skill designing puppets, Cromie made a splashy directorial debut in 2007 with his innovative, award-winning staging of the musical The Fantasticks at the now-defunct Mum Puppettheatre. At the PST, he scored again with an all-student cast in an exuberant production of Henry V. And earlier this season, he co-created and directed the Philly Fringe sleeper-hit A Paper Garden.
Titus Andronicus further reinforces Cromie’s standing as one of Philly’s most daring and inventive directors.
Through May 19. $25-$35. Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St. 215.496.8001. phillyshakespeare.org