Titus Andronicus is the work of a very young, very cheeky playwright.
Considered Shakespeare's first tragedy, the play is part Elizabethan torture-porn, part zany farce. The two strains converge famously in the third act, when Titus (James Carpenter) volunteers to get his own hand chopped off. Exiting the stage with his daughter Lavinia (Anna Bullard) -- who's just lost her hands and her tongue to a pair of rapists -- Titus asks the girl a favor. "Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth," he says. She complies, carrying her father's severed hand offstage in her mouth.
There's a reason the critic Harold Bloom insists that the only director fit for this material would be Mel Brooks.
Many productions of Titus are too timid to embrace the play's sick humor. Not so with Cal Shakespeare's new staging, directed with gusto and wit by Joel Sass. The production manages to overcome some of the play's weaknesses -- the leaden, declamatory speeches, the hastily drawn characters -- by going for the lurid thrills and unexpected laughs that make Shakespeare's tragedy at once goofy and barbaric.
It's one doozy of a revenge story, concluding with an outrageous spectacle of bloodletting, and the cast is game for all of it. I especially enjoyed Rob Campbell's offbeat turn as the oily, ineffectual Saturninus, the newly crowned emperor who finds himself in thrall to Tamora, queen of the Goths (steely, frightening Stacy Ross). The show is exceptionally well-designed. Emily Greene's industrial-slab set is a striking backdrop for Paloma H. Young's tribal-chic costumes. The sound design by Andre Pluess, heavy on drums, lends a propulsive momentum to the show. And fight director Dave Maier is presumably the guy to thank for the production's many gushings of stage blood.
In any decent staging of Titus, you can see signs of better work to come: the nihilistic villainy of Aaron the Moor (Shawn Hamilton) is a sketch for Iago, and Titus' lunatic vengeance is an obvious precursor to Hamlet. Rarely does the play stand on its own limited merits -- but here, for once, Shakespeare's youthful exuberance is not an impediment but a joy.
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