Featuring one of the most grizzly stage directions in the literary canon "Enter the Empress' sons, Demetrius and Chiron, with Lavinia, her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravish'd" the play's horror factor alone has long offended critical sensibilities. And that's to say nothing of the unremarkable poetry, flat characters, and demented plot. The drama follows the misfortunes of Roman war hero Titus Andronicus. When Titus gets on the wrong side of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, by sacrificing her eldest son to honor the memory of his own kinsmen killed in battle, the vengeful mother wages a campaign of terror upon the general with the help of her lover, Aaron the Moor. Starting with the rape and mutilation of Titus' daughter, Lavinia, by two of Tamora's surviving sons, the murder of Lavinia's husband, and the framing and execution of two of Titus' sons for the crime, the work swiftly unravels into a game of entrails-festooned tit for tat, ending only when the stage is littered with cadavers.
If there's any local company capable of doing justice to this schlockfest of severed body parts, gang rapes, and cannibalistic cookery, it ought to be Thrillpeddlers. Dedicated to staging horror revues based mostly on material from the hair-raising repertoire of Paris' early 20th-century Theâtre du Grand Guignol in the vampire's lair of a performance space under a SOMA flyover known as the Hypnodrome, the company has titillated San Francisco audiences for more than a decade with its viscous elixir of Gothic camp and flying limbs. The best thing about frequenting the Hypnodrome is the eccentric ambience. Skeletons hang from rusty chandeliers; actors perform tricks in the intermission; and a creaky player piano honkytonks Beatles songs in a corner by the life-sized, working replica of a guillotine. But no matter how trashy Thrillpeddlers shows might be, they're usually tight and well thought out. The only thing you'll see spilled all evening is blood. In addition, Thrillpeddlers' co-founder and artistic director, Russell Blackwood, has brought a warped sensibility to productions beyond the Hypnodrome's murky walls. For instance, his Cabaret, produced by Shotgun Players last winter, remains one of the most arresting interpretations of any musical I've seen to date.
So when Blackwood sashayed onto the Hypnodrome stage in a black silk smoking jacket like a thrift store Vincent Price to deliver a prologue to Titus Andronicus written for the occasion in festive doggerel by Rob Keefe, I felt excited about what the next three hours would bring. I was even prepared to dismiss the slightly embarrassing experience of watching cast members clad in Renaissance Faire-meets-toga party costumes perform amateurish magic tricks and garble their way through the opening scene out in the parking lot before ushering us inside as simply part of Thrillpeddlers' offbeat aesthetic. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was short-lived. It wasn't long before I wished I were out in the parking lot again, high-tailing it for the nearest bar.
For instead of balancing kitsch with control the hallmark of a good night out at the Hypnodrome Blackwood's Andronicus resembles a badly mutilated corpse. The entire production is essentially an extension of the set decor: It looks like someone grabbed handfuls of overcooked spaghetti and flung them at the walls. As actors hack their way through Shakespeare's verse, keel over like bowling pins, and endlessly shuffle wooden boxes filled with dead foliage and skulls around the stage, it's hard to know what Blackwood makes of this play. Like Bloom, does he see it as pure parody? Is he reaching for some hidden depth? Does he like Titus Andronicus at all, or does he think it's rubbish?
It's hard to tell what's going on thanks to the effluence of incoherent ideas that slosh past our eyes throughout the show. A few of the concepts such as Aaron and Tamora's tryst atop Titus' family tomb and the repurposing of this prop as the hole in the ground in which Titus' sons are framed for the murder of Lavinia's husband are good, unclean fun. The actors play many of the drama's more sensationalist moments for laughs; fake blood flows down the tongueless Lavinia's chin like a bubbling geyser, and scenes like the severing of Titus' hand elicit guffaws from the crowd.
Yet Blackwood seems to be aiming for something more thought-provoking than a bloodbath. The production emphasizes cross-dressing: Tamora's sons are both played by women (the Tweedledum and Tweedledeelike Treacy Corrigan and Le Anne Rumbel); the nurse (Mickey Abbate) is a jowly pantomime dame; and Tamora, though played by a woman (a big-haired Mary Knoll), looks like a member of Metallica. Conversely, as Roman emperor Saturninus, Victor Ballesteros is as fey as Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie. Meanwhile, Armond Edward Dorsey's turn as Aaron in a green velvet unitard makes a stab at androgyny. Unfortunately, the role-swapping doesn't elucidate anything the play might have to say about gender and sexuality. It simply draws attention to the fact that neither the actors nor the director seem to have much grasp of Shakespeare's text.
Critically acclaimed productions of Titus Andronicus, such as Peter Brook's 1955 version starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh and Julie Taymor's 1999 movie adaptation (called, simply, Titus) with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, have demonstrated that Shakespeare's grizzliest drama could amount to more than a pile of rotting flesh. But my opinion of the play hasn't changed much after watching Thrillpeddlers' hatchet job. It's still terrible.