I’ll be the first to admit that I was… concerned when I heard that one of DC’s funniest acting troupes was staging one of Shakespeare’s trickiest tragedies. I’ll also be the first to admit that I shouldn’t have worried. In the hands of the Faction of Fools, William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is transformed into the gruesome, vicious, absurd, and hilarious piece of theatre it was always meant to be.
As Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus is an odd duck in the Bard’s canon. While a turn to Ovid and Plutarch for inspiration was hardly out of character, Titus also aped the bloody revenge tragedies of its time. Drawing from Kyd and Marlowe, Shakespeare’s Titus was a sort of Michael-Bay-copycat of its time. If the blood and guts were putting butts in seats (or feet in the yard, to be accurate) then Shakespeare was going to give people exactly what they wanted. Lacking the maturity or subtlety of a Hamlet or Lear, Titus Andronicus seemed so out of place – so gory, so brutal, so gratuitous – that in the 18th and 19th centuries critics insisted that the play must have been written by someone else. Even as late as the mid-20th century, Harold Bloom was claiming that the best possible director for the piece would be Mel Brooks.
And oddly enough, while Titus has enjoyed a rehabilitation in the public eye, it seems that Faction of Fools decided to prove that Bloom was right all along. Under the direction of Artistic Director Matthew R. Wilson the company has embraced the violence and absurdities of the original text; rather than explain away or avoid the play’s difficulties, the cast gleefully employs them to better show the costs of violence and revenge. The set by Ethan Sinnott and costumes by Denise Umland are entirely white, serving as a literal canvas for the show’s bloody demonstrations. Even the characters’ commedia masks (by Aaron Cromie) are white. This Rome is pristine, untouched by the costs of its foreign ventures until Titus’s triumphant return from war leads to deaths in the street. From there, the body-count – and the amount of fake blood splashed liberally across the stage – keeps mounting.
Ok, but where does the funny come from? The production certainly has enough room for Wilson and co-choreographer Casey Kaleba to whip out all the old standards from Factions’ bag of tricks: hilarious chases, wink-wink-nudge-nudge innuendoes, and a healthy dose of extra character reaction. And all the blood, courtesy of Kaleba and Kristen Pilgrim, is like adding a cherry on top. But the real genius comes from the way the company handles the over-the-top moments baked right into the script. Heads in bags? That’s funny. People falling into pits? That’s funny. A severed hand carried in someone’s teeth? That’s hilarious. A revenge-crazed general dressed like a chef, baking his enemies into pies?
Hey, don’t look at me, Shakespeare wrote it.
Of all the atrocities in Titus‘s catalogue, though, the rape of Lavinia is the most shocking and the most contentious. Productions live and die based on how they handle it, and up until the actual moment I still had my doubts about how Faction would pull through. The violence occurs on stage, in keeping with the rest of the show’s blood-spurting aesthetic. The rape itself happens elsewhere. The aftermath proceeds as per the text. In a way, I was expecting something more. But over the course of the play, it becomes clear that Wilson and the Faction aren’t concerned directly with sexual violence. That’s not to say that the company trivializes the rape. Instead, the company is concerned with the ways in which Lavinia is silenced, not only by the act itself but by her family’s response. In what sort of society does this seem like a normal way to escalate a feud? And in what sort of society are the feelings and responses of a rape survivor less important than the “honor” of her family? Faction’s commedia staging also deftly covers some of the play’s other historical staging issues. When every single character is over-the-top and stylized, Aaron the Moor’s gleeful, mustache-twirling villainy is par for the course rather than a thesis on 16th century formulations of race.
Continuing their collaboration with Gallaudet University, Faction has deftly incorporated the use of ASL into their production. Both Lavinia and the Goth prince Demetrius communicate entirely through ASL. Audience members unfamiliar with sign language are assisted by the theatre’s open captioning system. This has several effects on the production; Aside from playing well with the company’s physical style of comedy, the use of ASL also drastically changes the nature of Lavinia’s silencing. Like most of the decisions made in this production, the integration of ASL does nothing but add to the play.
There’s so much to talk about in any production of Titus that I almost forgot to mention the cast’s performances. This part is easy: they’re great. Daniel Flint’s Saturninus is great; Toby Mulford’s Marcus is great; Matthew Pauli’s Lucius is great; Christina Marie Frank’s Tamora is great; Miranda Medugno’s Lavinia is great; Manu Kumasi’s Aaron is great. In lieu of reprinting the whole cast list, I’ll just say that if anyone in the cast wants their own write-up they should just let me know. Standing offer.
At the end of the day, Faction of Fools’ Titus Andronicus isn’t the same play as the Titus Andronicus you might see in other theatres. Buy me a beer and I’ll be happy to tell you about the nuances that were glossed over, the themes that were ignored, the crucial lines of text that were cut. But none of that matters to the company’s project. In a grand bit of stage magic, Faction has recreated Titus by embracing and exploding all of the play’s supposed weaknesses. It sounds a lot like the old play. It may look like the old play. But this new one is more consistent and more relevant; less troublesome and more troubling. And maybe most importantly, very bloody and very funny.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours long, with one 15-minute intermission.
Titus Andronicus plays through June 22, 2014 at Gallaudet University’s Eastman Studio Theatre (Elstad Annex) – 800 Florida Ave NE, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-838-3006, or purchase them online.