Where were you guys? Did you not realize that there is no better way to open the Fringe than taking Bad Bill Shakespeare’s great play, Titus Andronicus (in its day, a fringe festival in and of itself),and jazzing it up a little? I mean, you’ve got twenty dead guys even before the play starts! And after that, hands get hacked off, tongues get ripped out, severed heads roll out of the dustbins, and recipes Emeril never thought of get a workout…what more could you want? Wait, I know the answer – screaming guitars and a punk overlay written in the inimitable style of Shawn Northrip.
Well, brothers and sisters, here it is: the magnificent Titus X. Woohoo!
The opening show on the 9th was poorly attended, but I believe that this condition will be corrected once the buzz takes hold. I won’t say that Northrip improves on Shakespeare’s script, but he does make things clearer. And once you push through all the flash and nonsense, it turns out that the insight which guides this script is spot-on. The insight is this: aside from Aaron the Moor (Andrew Honeycutt), everyone in Titus Andronicus was pretty much a flippin’ moron…starting with Titus himself (the redoubtable Jason Stiles), a stubborn, vain man who repeats his mistakes over and over in an effort to prove that they’re not mistakes at all, but flashes of genius. The roster of this landlocked ship of fools includes the crass, cruel emperor Saturninus (Kevin Duffin) and his nerd brother Bassanius (Cesar A. Gaudamuz); Titus’ two sons (Duffin and Guadamuz), here depicted as hopeless stoners; and the two rapacious sons (Duffin and Gaudamuz) of the Goth queen Tamora (Emily Webbe), who is brought to Rome by Titus as a prisoner but who becomes an Empress.
Director Shirley Serotsky moves these numbskulls about the stage in jig time to the music of a tight three-man band (Nathan Bonfiglio, Jacob Jackovich and Billy Bob Bonson), and the uncredited choreography is off the hook.
I’m going to assume your familiarity with the basic plot of Titus Andronicus (if you’re interested, there’s a plot summary here (DCTS review from 2 years ago). It’s swell. It’s almost a pure punk rock opera; occasionally there will be a snippet of spoken dialogue connecting the songs like strips of skin connecting sausages. And the lyrics – well, they’re not Shakespeare, but they’re pretty cool. As mutilated Lavinia (Anne Marie Dalton) readies to collect blood from freshly-killed Demetrius (Duffin), Titus sings “she holds the bowl with her stumps/That gravy ain’t gonna have no lumps.”
Speaking of Dalton, she is grand (I particularly liked her tongueless efforts to sing), as is Guadamuz, who has five roles, all right in his wheelhouse. Youthful Beckett Martin does a very nice job until Titus puts an end to him in spectacular fashion. Webbe has a superb voice; I looked forward to every one of Tamora’s murderous plots because Webbe sings them so nicely. And Stiles is wonderful as usual. The combination of conviction and stupidity which so animates Titus’ face at crucial moments makes the comic portrayal at once hilarious and believable, even familiar.
To me, though, the great and pleasurable surprise is the performance of Duffin, a Philadelphia actor with D.C. roots. Although all of his characters (he plays four) are original comic invention, his signal accomplishment is to wrap the merciless tyrant Saturninus with an air of wounded victimhood. In so doing, he reminds us, as Bad Bill reminded us four hundred years ago, that all bullies are at bottom comic, and accordingly without significance.
By Shawn Northrip, adapting Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
Directed by Shirley Serotsky
Produced by Charlie Fink
Reviewed by Tim Treanor