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As grisly farce, ‘Titus Andronicus’ gets mixed results

Published: March 2, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

On the late, great “Arrested Development”—bear with me—GOB Bluth engages in a series of escalating dares with a strange woman that results in them robbing a convenience store and getting married.

William Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” is kind of like that, with its characters engaging in a series of escalating actions that result in severed tongues and delicious people-pies. Whoever said the Bard couldn’t be fun?

Hold Thy Peace latches onto this thought with its production of “Titus Andronicus,” playing this weekend, transforming this revenge play into a black comedy to decidedly tepid results.

Roman General Titus Andronicus (Andrew Prentice ’13) returns to Rome victorious after defeating and imprisoning Goth Queen Tamora (Stephanie Karol ’12). His nebbish brother Marcus (Aaron Fischer ’15) tries to crown him emperor, but Titus defers to the late emperor’s entitled daughter Saturnina (Gabrielle Geller ’12).

Saturnina in turn pledges to marry Titus’ daughter, Lavinia (Samantha LeVangie ’15), but Lavinia prefers Saturnina’s brother, Bassianus (Clifton Masdea ’15). So Saturnina shocks everyone—especially Titus—by settling for Tamora, Rome’s former enemy. Ruh-roh.

That’s where everything starts getting a smidge bloody. Tamora is none too happy with Titus—maybe it’s the defeat in battle or the son he ritually sacrificed upon returning to Rome—and she’s determined to get her revenge. With the help of her Moorish lover Aaron (Jonathan Plesser ’12), Tamora and family kill most of Titus’ kin, all the while making the Andronici look really dysfunctional.

It’s enough to drive a man insane—and oh, it certainly does. Titus isn’t particularly well-adjusted, killing one of his sons in the first act for disobedience. By the end, he’s absolutely bat-shit crazy.

The play’s critical reception has varied wildly during the last 400 years. This stems from its laundry list of violent acts: human sacrifice, gang rape, cannibalism, mutilation. In the 1580s, Shakespeare’s audience gobbled up all the gore he served; revenge plays were all the rage in England at the time.

Later audiences felt differently. The Victorians found the copious cadavers and severed limbs troubling, while T. S. Eliot deemed it “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.”

Today the violence seems excessive and over-the-top. The characters on stage can barely move around without stumbling across a dead body. As Mel Brooks observed, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” The subsequent decision to transform the play into a tragic farce seems natural, and this is exactly the inclination that seized this production, led by directors Carolyn Daitch ’14 and Ben Federlin ’14.

It works, except when it doesn’t, which is a lot. This approach proves especially shaky in the beginning, when the tonal dissonances between the serious and comedic are especially pronounced. In one instance, those wacky Andronici brothers Martius (Simon Cramer ’13) and Quintus (Jessica Pizzuti ’15) clumsily fall into a pit with the corpse of Bassianus. This is followed by a decidedly serious vignette in which Tamora’s sons (Sari Holt ’15 and Ryan Kacani ’15) rape her, cut her hands off and rip out her tongue. Awkward! How are we supposed to feel about this? We don’t know and neither apparently does the production.

This tonal juxtaposition improves steadily throughout the production. It’s in top form by the climax, in which half the characters get killed by rolling pins and plastic fish.

They say you’re only as good as your talent, and initially the show also suffers from some stiff, static acting in its opening scenes. Some overact, while others are in need of a pulse. Yet a fascinating transformation occurs during the show, as everyone finds their footing. Pulses are found; the wild gesticulating is reined in.

A few actors capture the show’s dark humor with precision. Geller acts with her entire body, which combines with her pouty voice to convey Saturnina’s haughtiness and sense of entitlement. Once Tamora finds power, Karol assumes a campy, affected demeanor, speaking to everyone as though they’re simpletons. She perhaps best handles the production’s farcical elements. Alex Davis ’15, as Titus’ eldest son Lucius, shows great timing as the play’s deadpan voice of reason. Plesser, meanwhile, knows how to join perfectly the play’s verse with lewd gestures.

Ultimately the comedy here feels unnatural, a few scenes excepted. Hold Thy Peace should be lauded for its willingness to experiment with their recent productions, which have included a steampunk “Othello” and a recut rendition of the “Henry VI” trilogy. But comedy is notoriously hard to pull off and here it doesn’t quite work.