'Titus Androgynous' turns the tables on the Bard and finds comic farce in bloody tragedy
YoungLiars take on William Shakespeare's violent, vengeful Titus Andronicus, the cleverly titled and smartly staged Titus Androgynous, gives the play, often cited as among Shakespeare's worst, a surprisingly effective comic turn. Instead of overwhelming, overwrought grief, we find exaggerated characters, pointedly over-the-top violence, and genuinely unexpected humor. Of particular interest is the word play that's revealed. There are layered puns, double entendres, purposeful mispronunciations, and a plethora of innuendo that easily support the interpretation when the show is pared down to focus on its comic possibilities.
The story itself is rather straightforward, if gruesome. Roman general Titus has defeated the Goths and taken their queen, Tamora, and her sons captive, sacrificing one as tribute to the gods. Tamora's bloody and exacting revenge begins the moment the newly appointed Roman emperor, Saturnanus (intended sic), chooses her as his empress.
Tamora's sons kill the emperor's brother and brutally attack Titus' daughter Lavinia. Implicated by a forged note and bag of gold planted by Tamora's lover Aaron, two of Titus' sons are executed for the murder. When Titus discovers the truth, he kills the sons and serves them, baked in meat pies, to their mother. By the end of the show, almost everyone is dead.
The play is packed with rage, destruction, gore, and, when presented as a tragedy, grief. As comedy, however, the incessant bloodletting fits in well with the exaggerated emotions and villainy -- gleeful excess delivered with a sinister sneer. Director Chuck Harper, costumer Maggie Conroy, and composer Paul Cereghino are absolutely synchronized in their approach and the effect is thoroughly entertaining. There's a coarse, b-movie look to David Blake's set design and Ben Lewis' lights that underscores the highly visual comic approach. This is not high drama, but some scholars, citing a general preference for graphic violence among the Globe's patrons, contend that the original play wasn't, either. Titus Androgynous is laugh out loud funny even when it's a little uncomfortable, and fantastically enjoyable, too.
Conroy, as Tamora, Jonah Walker, as Titus Androgynous, Isaiah de Lorenzo, as Saturnanus, and Erin Renee Roberts, as Aaron the Moore, are the center of this psychotically murderous tale. Cereghino, as musician and Clown, is our guide and narrator through the quickly shifting violence. Conroy and Roberts are ravenous and Machiavellian, and countered by an equally fierce Walker; their energy is stereotypically and unrepentantly masculine. de Lorenzo walks like a dancer, with an air of authority and a hint of sexual ambiguity, and Cereghino provides a delightfully constant stream of chatter, commentary, and wit that's sometimes Gracie Allen, sometimes Lou Costello, and all court jester.
Mitch Eagles, Ellie Schwetye, Amanda Wales, Rachel Tibbets, Jeff Skoblow, Michael Ferguson, and the enthusiastically mischievous Katy Keating capably support the leads, with the majority of the ensemble taking on a variety of roles. Wales, Schwetye, and Keating play all the sons and Eagles and Tibbets are extra sweet as the true lovers. Skoblow is quite funny, with a sly, "Did you see what I just did? Don't tell." manner, while Ferguson's reticence indicates a (perhaps feigned) preference to stay behind his drum kit. Dressed as a London schoolboy, Keating's character is devilishly captivating. A maniacal hybrid, she's part 'Lord of the Flies' meets 'Clockwork Orange' and part sassy stewardess, with a demeanor that implies "coffee, tea, or bloody murder?"
The twisted take employs highly mannered and stylized movements and Edwardian undergarments, specifically corsets and bloomers as the base for all costumes. Clever musical interludes speed the exposition while humorously pointing out the ridiculous nature of the original script. Malapropisms applied to character names result in sophomoric puns and there's a sense of early vaudeville, perhaps due to Michael Ferguson's expressive drumming and the accelerated pacing of the show. The resulting mash-up is darkly funny, excessively violent, and quietly androgynous, an interesting choice that may disappoint some audience members but seems ironically ambiguous from my perspective.
Titus Androgynous, running through November 11, 2017, works surprisingly well as comedy. The witty adaptation reveals unexpected jibes, puns, and excess in the pared down source that give the show an energetic boost. The comedy is completely engaging, and Cereghino's clever songs deliver the bulk of the exposition with as much humor and excess as the script. Fans of the Bard, and anyone in the mood for comedy and horror expertly blended, won't want to miss YoungLiar's unique take on the oft-maligned play.