There’s a bloody moment in the first act of Faction of Fools’ Titus Andronicus that goes way, way too far – and it is a mighty relief.
We can almost believe up to that point, despite the handful of gory executions that have occurred, that the Fools might have pulled their punches. Sure, we’ve been watching them blend their commedia dell’arte style with Shakespeare’s overwrought, bloody tragedy with some irreverence in the first dozen minutes or so. But perhaps they’ve held back, given the brutality of the story. After all, what bits of humor do appear in Shakespeare’s original are rather overshadowed by the the rape, dismemberment, cannibalism and threats of infanticide. Have all the Fools done, we might be thinking, is add big-nosed masks, crotch-grabbing humor and pratfalls to the revenge tragedy? Is this merely bad taste?
It turns out, however, that they’re just easing us in to an accelerating ride down a long, steep hill – and after we’ve gotten to the bottom, it will be be difficult to imagine Titus being played straight ever again (if other adaptations like the rock musical Titus X haven’t yet suggested that). The Fools’ version escapes the awkward, bad-taste realm of jokey, tone-deaf violence not by holding back, but by eventually going so far that the whole thing loops back around to where the bad taste becomes necessary. It’s the only way to truthfully grapple with the overpowering viciousness of the Bard’s tale.
The key to director Matthew R. Wilson’s interpretation is that it meets the characters where they live. And that place is an Ancient Rome where violence is relished like a feast, and a chance for vengeance is a great gift. In this world, Titus (Nello Deblasio) never seems so ecstatic as when he is hysterically mourning the maiming of his daughter, Lavinia (Miranda Medugno), at the hands of Chiron (Tyler Herman) and Demetrius (Charlie Ainsworth), the sons of his rival Tamora (Christina Marie Frank).
Tamora, for her part, seems thrilled when Titus starts the play by taking the life of one of her sons, thus giving her an excuse to pursue bloody vengeance for the rest of the tale. (This is all fallout from a war where Titus captured Tamora and her brood, before returning to Rome.) And most of all there’s Aaron the Moor (Manu Kumasi), who utterly delights in seeing people get murdered and blamed for murder. These people live for nothing but blood, so Wilson gives them blood. Something like four gallons of it.
Taken inside-out like this, with the horrors of the play treated not as tragedies but as the rewards and achievements the characters see them as, everything changes from disgusting to hilarious – and the more violent and flippant the Fools are with the body parts being flung about, the funnier it gets. (This is the kind of show where you think, “What a sick mind the people behind this have, to use a faucet like that,” and mean it admiringly.)
If it’s not yet clear, this is not a show for the faint of heart. Seeing what the Fools do with a severed hand, even though we know that it’s a rubber prop (albeit a very well-made one, thanks to designer Kristen Pilgrim) is still plenty disturbing – because we know someone had to be sick enough (again, admiringly) to even think of pretending to use a severed hand that way.
Perhaps the most delightful of the sick ideas Wilson and the Fools have come up with is one of the simplest – using almost exclusively the color white in the design. With so much blood being spilled, set designer Ethan Sinnot’s choice to make the expanse of the stage pure white is such a masterstroke it seems a necessity. We can see everything, and we can’t forget any of it. (Moreover, Sinnott’s clever shapes and steps allow plenty of opportunities for deliciously awkward deaths, falls and reveals.) And costume designer Denise Umland’s similarly blank-canvas costumes allow the completion of the gruesome picture, while still finding ways to instantly differentiate the nearly twenty characters.
Closes June 22, 2014
Eastman Studio Theatre
Elstad Annex at Gallaudet University
800 Florida Avenue NE
Washington, DC 20002
2 hours with 1 intermission
Thursdays through Sundays
Among the cast, Kumasi, in particular, has a fine way of getting funnier the more violent his character gets. As well, Toby Mulford makes Marcus, Titus’ devoted brother, somehow the most disturbing character by virtue of portraying him as dottering and friendly of demeanor unfailingly, throughout even the grossest of the events.
Medugno, meanwhile, provides the one anchor of heart and sanity amidst the murderous chaos – the straight man, if you will, staring out at the audience in incredulity and a kind of sardonic resignation. She lets us see the tragedy of her sign language-speaking Lavinia losing her hands, without slipping into melodrama. This is simply the world she lives in, and she cannot escape it; all she can do is shake her head at it. She is the constant reminder that absolutely none of what happens needs to happen.
Yet we who have voices, and sit outside all of this, do have a way to escape this senselessness – laughter. As we watch the characters compete with each other over who can suffer the worst and cause the worst suffering, there’s simply no better reaction to such skewed priorities. To that end, there’s no one funnier than Deblasio’s Titus, so devoted to the pain he receives and causes that we wonder how, to Deblasio’s credit, he ever seemed like the most humble character at the play’s start. If only we had a chance to see the Tituses in the real world the way Wilson and Deblasio show him and his cohort to us. Above all else, this production reveals that they are bloody fools.
Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare . Adapted and directed by Matthew R. Wilson . Featuring Nello DeBlasio as Titus, Cori Dioquino, Daniel Flint, Christina Marie Frank, Tyler Herman, Manu Kumasi, Toby Mulford, Matthew Pauli, Chema Pineda-Fernández, Miranda Medugno and Charlie Ainsworth. Scenic Design by Ethan Sinnott . Blood Effects by Casey Kaleba . Costumes by Denise Umland . Lighting by Michael Barnett . Properties by Kristen Pilgrim . Masks by Aaron Cromie . Music Composition and Sound Design by Thomas Sowers . Fight Directors: Matthew R. Wilson and Casey Kaleba . Produced by Faction of Fools . Reviewed by Brett Abelman.