Currently at the Walkerspace down in Tribeca is the inaugural production by Gotham Shakespeare Co. of one of William Shakespeare's all-time greatest comedies Titus Andronicus. Wait, I must be wrong you say! Titus Andronicus isn't a comedy, but a tragedy full of bloody murder, rape, bodily amputation, and cannibalism, right? Yes, all those elements are still there, but based on this production, Shakespearean scholars might want to rethink their generic classification of this work.
For a tragedy, never before have I seen the audience (myself included) break into so many unexpected chortles and inappropriate moments of laughter at the often wrongly misdirected doings on stage. Sure, there can be a gleefulness and sadistic indulgence vis-à-vis the play's themes of revenge and murder, but often scenes were unintentionally bordering on slapstick comedy that made for a strange production of Shakespeare's bloodiest play.
Given all the death and violence on stage, it's hard to believe that one could find a reason to laugh at all. The title figure (David Arden Engel), recently returned to Rome after having fought the Goths, comes at a time of a shift in leadership. Saturninus (Brian Silliman) becomes Emperor and initially chooses for his wife, Lavinia (Sutton Crawford), Titus's daughter. Lavinia, though, is in love with Bassianius (Chris Mollica), Saturninus's political opponent. Choosing to marry Tamora, Queen of the Goths instead, making her the Empress of Rome, Saturninus sets into motion a chain of events that leaves the desire for burning revenge (for all parties) in its wake. As in many Shakespearean dramas, power alliances are formed and deceitful trickery ensues (much like a weekly episode of Survivor), and it's not long before the heads (and in this play, arms and tongues) start to roll.
Sounds grim, right? Only rarely, though, does this production accurately capture a sense of fear and horror suitable to the show's serious themes. Instead, many moments inspire laughter. Take, for instance, the scene in which Lavinia and Bassianius, her lover, are attacked by Chiron (Dennis Hurley) and Demetrius (Brian Lee Huynh), Tamora's supporters. As directed by Abe Goldfarb and acted by Hurley and Huynh, the audience laughed audibly as Lavinia tumbled to the ground in something more akin to a comic pratfall than an act of physical violence. Bassianius's death was equally comic, and when he is joined in a "pit" (here a trap door) by Martius (Michael Eisenstein) and Quintus (Jon Campbell), sons of Andronicus, who try to rescue him, the scene borders on farce with the brothers calling out from the trap door as they each fall in one by one. So much for tragedy.
Or take Silliman as Emperor (or should I say Empress) Saturninus? As played by Silliman, the Emperor comes off as a swishy queen whose temper tantrums are more like Richard Simmons hissy fits. Can we really take Saturninus seriously as demanding revenge on Bassianius or Andronicus, let alone believe he is possessed with manly lust for both Lavinia and Tamora as he walks around with such prissiness?
Though the acting of the large ensemble isn't bad as a whole, only a few actors really seem to have a sense of the true nature and depth of the play. Thankfully, David Arden Engel demonstrates a sure hand (or should I say stump?) as the title character. Seemingly the most experienced actor of the lot, he brings much needed dramatic intensity to the role. When he enacts revenge in Act Two on Chiron and Demetrius, the men who have defiled his daughter and maimed her, it was the first time in the show that I truly felt afraid and terrified by the play's seething and scary violent nature. As the black moor Aaron who has an affair with Tamora, George Hannah is also a standout performer who exhibits wisdom of interpretation in his solid and passionate line readings.
As far as director Abe Goldfarb, at the very least one can credit him with organizing a zippy production that speeds along with a painless hour-long first act and a forty-five minute second act, making this a most manageable Shakespearean evening. That said, most of Goldfarb's directorial decisions are questionable, if not outright laughable. Because he never works to maintain a sense of tragedy, and instead lets the play frequently slide into the aforementioned moments of humor, the play doesn't really register as fierce drama. Instead of tragedy writ large, Shakespeare's characters come off as petty bumblers who we care little about once they go at it.
The mood of the piece is further confused by the uneven amalgam of styles, visual and aural, that Goldfarb has chosen to define this production. Though the all red shirt and suspender costumes (designed by J. Adam Miller) that the Andronicus supporters wear are snappy looking and effective, other members of the cast are in black samurai outfits, while Tamora, at one point, is attired in a getup out of My Fair Lady's Ascot Gavotte scene. Meanwhile, there are a variety of music cues throughout the evening including the use of Figaro's famous aria from The Barber of Seville during the opening scene of Act 2, which seemingly makes no sense and which only serves to distract from Shakespeare's lines and makes one think we are watching light opera.
Ironically, because of the play's seemingly unintentional humor, the audience apparently enjoyed itself. It's questionable whether Goldfarb would take pride in this fact, but if it puts bodies in seats, maybe he shouldn't complain. I, on the other hand, will wait patiently for a production of Titus Andronicus that is truly tragic and which will more thoroughly scare me to no end.
Gotham Shakespeare Co.