Who knew thundering electric guitars, buckets of blood, and Elizabethan tragedy would go together so well? Heavy metal and horror clash with the immortal words of Shakespeare in Molotov Theatre Group’s disturbing, funny, and bleak Mondo Andronicus.
A modern, truncated version of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Mondo tells the tale of the titular Roman general locked in a tragic cycle of violence with his enemy Tamora, queen of the Goths. The two devise a series of ghastly machinations that portends a dark end for both families. The audience is granted a brief reprieve from the bloodletting at intermission, when the company puts on a riotous, light speed rendition of one of Shakespeare’s more popular tragedies. After these five minutes of levity, however, the audience is plunged back into the pitch-black world of Titus, where things quickly go from bad to worse to downright apocalyptic.
Whereas other productions would be tempted to hide the real carnage backstage or behind a screen, Molotov elevates the violence that pervades Shakespeare’s dark script to an entirely new level. Body parts, bloodcurdling screams, and brutal deaths dominate the short runtime. Molotov Theatre Group is dedicated to the style of Grand Guignol – the original French Theater of Horror; this is a group that really knows how to get under the audience’s skin.
The dingy theater and grungy aesthetic of the production belies the small cast’s serious dedication to their performance and their delivery of Shakespeare’s challenging language. The actors rarely allow themselves to succumb to the melodramatic tendencies that plague so many in theater and film during repeated, difficult scenes of violence and death. They also exhibit a firm grasp of the text, bending the lines to their will with relative ease and exerting the full force of the Bard’s words upon the audience.
Alex Zavistovich delivers a magnetic, emotional turn as Titus Andronicus, subtly shifting between sorrow, rage, and babbling dementia throughout the show. As Tamora’s lover Aaron, JaBen Early makes Shakespeare’s words into knives as sharp as those wielded by his despicable brethren with his intense, steely eyed delivery. Cyle Durkee is delightfully sleazy in the dual role of emperor Saturninus and the Queen’s son Demetrius. The fact that he plays both Tamora’s husband and her twisted, Oedipal son makes his performance all the more unnerving.
The screeching metal soundtrack serves as a strangely appropriate undercurrent to many of the production’s emotional climaxes. At its most effective, the punishing crescendo of guitar, bass, and double-pedal drums brings a mythic quality to Titus’ pivotal speech about two very special meat pies, making it seem as if he’s about to call down the wrath of the Gods. At its worst, the music feels contrived and overdone, but on the whole it aids in building an oppressive atmosphere of dread, much in the way shrieking violins have proved indispensable to crafting hair- raising moments throughout horror history.
Unfortunately, the show is slightly undermined by the cheap quality of the props and effects. Given the high bar set by the superior acting and text, as well as Molotov’s emphasis on gore in both its marketing and mission statement, it’s hard not to be disappointed when a tense, well-acted moment of dread is followed by the revelation of a cheesy plastic hand or stump. The ultimate effect is almost like seeing Sir Patrick Stewart, as Henry II, make an appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse”. A confusing metaphor, perhaps, but an appropriate one. The effects and props are perfect, however, for the zany, tongue-in-cheek intermission, when the cast lampoons Shakespeare, rather than trying to be taken seriously.
Measuring at just over an hour, the show is a bloody, dizzying descent into the darkest corners of the human heart. If you can handle the graphic violence and ignore the B-movie props, there are impressive performances to behold here. Mondo Andronicus offers up a meaty dish of raw, vital theater that will haunt you long after you leave.
From the original Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
Adapted by Russ Blackwood
Directed by Lucas Maloney
Produced by Molotov Theatre Group
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Chris Klimek . City Paper