Shakespeare’s early revenge tragedy, TITUS ANDRONICUS, is a bloodbath of murder, dismemberment, rape, and cannibalism, which has remained for centuries the Bard’s most maligned work. Some have questioned its authorship, others blame it on the playwright’s youth, and English dramatist Edward Ravenscroft, writing in 1687, went so far as to call it “a heap of Rubbish” in the introduction to his own more tempered version of the play. But that long-held opinion will surely change with Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s spectacularly entertaining production, which combines live actors with puppetry, and melodramatic brutality with over-the-top comedy.
Director and puppet-designer Aaron Cromie (who had a runaway hit with HENRY V at PST’s Classical Acting Academy in the summer of 2010), recognized a parity between the excessive violence of Shakespeare’s historical fiction—ostensibly portraying horrific events from the ancient Roman Empire, but wholly the invention of the playwright–and Grand-Guignol theater of late 19th-century Paris. Named after a popular French puppet character, the Guignol style featured horror shows with gory special effects and startlingly bloody climaxes interspersed with mood-lightening comedic passages–making it the perfect fit for Cromie’s inspired vision of TITUS ANDRONICUS.
Under Cromie’s guidance, members of the cast and crew were responsible for creating and manipulating some 40 puppets used in the show, from the flat silhouetted shadow puppets controlled from behind a backlit screen, to the costumed Bunraku-style puppets, with expressively carved heads and hands, which appear onstage with the actors and through the curtained windows and doorways of Lisi Stoessel’s impressive set—a giant-size multi-level puppet-stage modeled after the Neo-Gothic wood paneling and pointed arches of the original Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris. Together the ensemble of puppets and actors oozes gallons of stage blood and loses countless molded body parts, as they fall victim to the relentless cycle of vengeance exacted by Shakespeare’s insanely barbarous Goths and Romans.
The exceptional cast, in stylized white-face make-up and Victorian-style music hall costumes by Natalia de la Torre, enthusiastically embraces the exaggerated characters and sensationalized plot. Equally adept at the seriously terrible and the delectably ludicrous, Rob Kahn as the vengeful Titus Andronicus, Caroline Crocker as the diabolical Goth Queen Tamora, and Jered McLenigan as the foppishly wicked Saturninus transition seamlessly between the “hot and cold showers” of the Guignol tradition, fully comprehending the need for parody to make the excessive violence palatable.
Among the supporting players, Lesley Berkowitz brings pathos to the role of Lavinia, Davon Williams captures both the passion and chill of Aaron the Moor, and Johnny Smith—one of the most captivating young actors in Philadelphia theater–ranges from gravely Shakespearean to simply hilarious in his multiple roles (including his brief turn as a female nurse). And Ian Sullivan, as the new Emperor Lucius, is left to deliver Shakespeare’s most shockingly ironic line, when, following the play’s hour and forty minutes of unbridled cruelty, he thanks the “gentle” Romans.
Praise is also due to Mike Cosenza for his accomplished choreography, the behind-the-scenes puppeteers (Victoria Rose Bonito, Kienan McCartney, Eileen Tarquin, and Andrew Webb), who handled their charges with skill, and above all, to Aaron Cromie for his brilliant orchestration of this Elizabethan pulp fiction. Laudate ad omnes!
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Aaron Cromie
April 11-May 19, 2012
The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre
2111 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103