A Horribly Good Time with TITUS ANDRONICUS at CSC — But Don’t Call It Shakespeare

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A Horribly Good Time with TITUS ANDRONICUS at CSC — But Don’t Call It Shakespeare

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com October 31, 2015

Lisa Hodsoll, Rachael Jacobs, Joel Ottenheimer

Lisa Hodsoll, Rachael Jacobs, Joel Ottenheimer

Whatever the obscurities in Shakespeare – and they are infinite – one is never in doubt as to the dominant genre into which one of his plays fits. Often the title itself will tell you whether you are watching a comedy or a tragedy. A case in point is The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, now being staged by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. The title tells you you are watching a tragedy. At least you’re supposed to be watching one. Apparently director Ian Gallanar doesn’t think so, and he plays the whole thing as a comedy.

It’s a very understandable temptation to do this difficult work strictly for laughs. The whole affair is seemingly engineered to the sole end that there be as many bodies as possible littering the stage throughout and especially at the end. In pursuing this “production value,” Shakespeare was clearly following the taste of the times, the way Michael Bay knows his modern-day audience demographic likes big explosions and fast cars. But to the modern palate Shakespeare’s drive to depict death and gore in Titus seems overdone. And, as we know, it’s a natural progression from horror to black comedy.

Unfortunately, if you turn a Shakespearean grand guignol into black comedy, you’re revenging yourself on old Will for trying to take you somewhere you don’t want to go (the land of tragic gore-fest). It’s much easier to poke fun than to stage Shakespeare’s actual play. And that’s what Gallanar’s choices have amounted to.

First of all, there are the casting choices. Shakespeare’s Titus is supposed to be a military man, a general for the battle-field. As played by Michael P. Sullivan, even wearing faintly-ridiculous reddish camos, he carries himself and looks more like a Northern Virginia military contractor who spends most of the day doing something with computers. (Yes, that’s a bona fide type, and plenty of us who live in this neck of the woods know plenty of them.) No miles gloriosus about him, and not much gravitas. His chief foil, Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Karen Rosnizeck) comes across as a suburban matron who’s taking time off from working out with a personal trainer because being a scheming empress is so much more of a hoot. And what is Saturninus the cadet emperor (Vince Eisenson) doing marrying Tamora anyway? Whatever the actors’ real ages, it looks as if he’d paired up with his mom. (Are we supposed to think that’s the real dynamic?) And what’s Marcus, a tribune and hence male by definition, doing being recast as female (and I’m sure I heard her inconsistently referred to as Marca) (Lisa Hodsoll) (picured above at left), and looking more like an art professor than a member of an all-male governing body?

Even when the casting isn’t off, the characterization is. Tamora’s brutish sons Demetrius and Chiron (James Jager and Sèamus Miller), are played as punks who seem to have wandered off the set of Mad Max, more canine than human. Lavinia would never have let herself be in the same zip code as those two. The lovely and chaste Lavinia, played about as well as can be expected in this chaos by Rachael Jacobs (pictured above at center), is still required to make a ridiculous gag-me-with-a-spoon face when first offered in marriage to the wrong guy. And there’s lots and lots of glee in various quarters over all the gore, and not, so far as I could make out, one moment of genuine, not-played-ironically, not deliberately overplayed pathos over the death and loss accompanying the stabbings and dismemberments. The only character who in Shakespeare’s conception seems to have taken that kind of pleasure in mayhem is Aaron the Moor (Gregory Burgess), but in this setting his over-the-top villainy and bloodlust do not stand out as they should.

In short, there seems to be zero respect for the play itself. It’s just a text to abuse about as badly as Demetrius and Chiron abuse Lavinia.

Sooo – that said: How was it? Well, let me put it this way: a lot of people in the audience were having a lot more fun than I was. I think if you take this show for what it was intended to be rather than what Shakespeare’s play was intended to be: if you view it as an entertainment for those whose taste runs to the aforementioned Mad Max, toRocky Horror, to the movies of Quentin Tarrantino (none of which I’m knocking, but let’s not call them Shakespeare), then this may be a lark for you. Within those broad and relatively undemanding parameters, Gallanar’s conception of the entertainment works.

But I do find myself wondering what we would have seen if the talented folks at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company had risen to the challenge of doing it straight, if the cast had been told to eschew modern-day cheap laughs and gone for Elizabethan cheap thrills instead. The audience might not have had so good a time, but I think we might have been dragged to an interesting place modern theatergoers seldom get to visit. You can catch a glimpse of what might have been at the end, when Titus serves Tamora and Saturninus meat pies that Sweeney Todd would have appreciated; the buildup to the moment works both as straight melodrama and as parody; Shakespeare knows how to build a scene. At a theater bearing Shakespeare’s name, you might have hoped for more of that to happen.

Well, that didn’t happen. I think it’s fair to say, though, that audiences looking for comedic horror will get enough of it to satisfy them.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photograph. Photo credit: Teresa Castracane.

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