Faction of Fools Titus AndronicusBy Bob Ashby • Jun 5th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Faction of Fools: (Info) (Web)
Gallaudet University-Elstad Auditorium, Washington DC
Through June 22nd
2:15 with intermission
$15-$25 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed June 1st, 2014
How do you avoid cheesy lines in praise of Faction of Fools’ current production of Titus Andronicus? Things like “Bloody good time!” or “Give those actors a hand.” Oh, why try? In this intentionally, violently silly production of what could justly be regarded as Shakespeare’s worst play, the mayhem and over-the-top shtick make far more sense than an attempt at a straightforward production. And, by the way, the play may not even be Shakespeare’s at all. There is a centuries-old, probably unresolvable, controversy about whether Shakespeare actually wrote the thing, or at least whether he may have had a forgettable collaborator. It’s an interesting question whether, absent its debatable connection to Shakespeare, anyone would bother looking at this early 1590s mess of a revenge tragedy outside the depths of university literature departments.
Well, Faction of Fools (FoF) might, because the script, full as it is of scheming, beheading, behanding, stabbing, strangling, spearing, and meat pie-baking, and rape, is perfect fodder for the troupe’s comedia-influenced, high-speed, slapstick, ironically knowing, approach to its material. The play uses an ensemble cast, with no preeminent lead, but the FoF production does have a star: stage blood. It’s everywhere. Sometimes it’s a fountain. Sometimes it shoots forth in rhythm, to musical accompaniment. Sometimes it lies on stage for a while, waiting for use by a character. Sometimes you just turn a faucet and there it is. The sanguinary permutations seem endless, and much credit goes to fight choreographer Casey Kaleba for the design and execution of the effects. If there were a Helen Hayes Award for blood, he’d be the front-runner.
Whether non-Shakespeare or semi-Shakespeare or simply bad Shakespeare, the play does not teem with fully realized characters an audience comes to care about, which makes it easier to accept their usually bloody demise. There is one major exception, Lavinia, the daughter of Titus, who is raped, then has her tongue pulled out and her hands cut off to keep her silent. The role is played by Miranda Medugno, a Galludet theater graduate who signs the lines she has before she is mutilated. (The perpetrators have a chilling moment where their realization that she communicates by signing motivates them to remove her hands.) After the graphic horror of the attack on her, she becomes a rather still, almost stoic figure, most notably in a scene where three other characters loudly wail and wallow in bathos on seeing her condition, while she remains seemingly unmoved.
In this style, and given the absence of memorable language in the script, verbal nuance is not a priority. For the most part, actors declaim their lines loudly and rather melodramatically. Titus (Nello DeBlasio) is a prime example of this tendency, which could be fatal to a portrayal in a “straight” production of this or any play but which does not make much difference here. There’s one nice exception to this trend, when Marcus (Toby Mulford) quietly and tenderly helps Lavinia offstage after she is attacked.
Nor is the play itself, or the FoF style in performing it, a place to look for subtle shadings of character. Take the two villains, Tamora (Christina Marie Frank) and Aaron (Manu Kumasi). Tamora is the deadliest of femme fatales, waving her arms about, blatantly exercising her feminine wiles to the hilt, and scheming to hurt her enemy Titus by any means available, the crueler the better. Aaron, Tamora’s servant and lover, simply enjoys his villainy — seldom has evil been so cheerful, as when he notes that he has made his mistress his mistress. Kumasi moves extremely well, making his evil graceful as well as cheerful. Megduno’s Lavinia aside, this pair of malefactors make the most pronounced individual impressions of any of the cast’s members.
There is also an interesting racial angle to the villains’ relationship. While the moral makeup of the characters could not be more different, Aaron, like Othello, is a “Moor” (i.e., is black), while Tamora, like Desdemona, is white. Together, they produce a mixed-race baby (the doll representing the baby is outfitted with its own miniature mask), which quite scandalizes the ancient Rome seen through 16th-century British eyes. Unlike many a production of Othello, the FoF production does not seek interesting ways of exploring the contemporary resonance of this portion of the script, seemingly being content to take this aspect of the play at face value.
The production’s hallmark is choreographed comic movement. Director Matthew R. Wilson and Kaleba keep the cast in nearly constant, sometimes frenetic, motion, with one sight gag after another, even when the blood is not flowing. The cast is strongly committed to the style, and they carry it out with verve and precision.
There is a serious point behind all the lunacy, and that point is also made visually. Ethan Sinnott’s set and Denise Umland’s costumes are white, as are the actors’ comedia makeup and Aaron Cromie’s well-executed masks. As the production proceeds, everything white becomes covered — saturated is not too strong a term — with the free-flowing gore, as the production displays the craziness of unrestrained violence to the audience in vivid red-on-white. Director Wilson’s program note underlines the point, when he says “There is nothing funny about murder or rape but there is something absurd about the culture of violence and patriarchy that produces these atrocities.”
FoF turns a problematic script into a stylistic and darkly funny triumph. Far be it from a critic to skewer the company’s efforts.
(Editor’s Note: Due to a scheduling mixup, ShowBizRadio sent two reviewers to cover this production. See David Siegel’s review for another view of the show.)
I have always been fascinated by the aesthetic of violence. Conflict, collision, and combat — although sources of pain — can also bring moments of beauty. Consider the virtuosity of the martial artist, the elegant sheen of a blood spatter, or even the breathtaking splendor of an exploding supernova.
For this bloody play, all the world’s a canvas, and we witness, not only acts of violence, but their aftermath as well. Our Rome is a pristine, gleaming empire that inflicts brutality on other cultures while maintaining a capital city that is sanitary, safe, and spotless. All that changes when Titus returns triumphant and the bloodstains start to accumulate.
The bloodshed in Titus is senseless; it is spectacular; and, yes, sometimes it is downright silly. But Shakespeare and his contemporaries already knew that.
During the Renaissance, Seneca’s grisly Roman tragedies came back into vogue, and Commedia dell’Arte players presented their own violent delights as part of their repertoire of traveling plays. These “tragic” Commedia pieces were known under the genre of opera reggia, the “royal works” featuring nobles behaving badly — very badly indeed…
Shakespeare knew of this genre both from Seneca’s classical writings and from the contemporary performances of itinerant Italian players. He clearly had these in mind when penning Titus Andronicus, his own contribution to the genre of Renaissance horror story. The play is not meant to be a joke, but it is too absurd to stomach as a straight drama. It is the sixteenth-century’s version of Saw or Hostel.
In our darkly comic adaptation, something wicked becomes something wickedly delightful. We see the senselessness of violence — whether in warfare, sibling rivalries, or revenge — and we see the egocentric callousness with which people ignore survivors because they are too consumed with their own grief. There is nothing funny about murder or rape, but there is something absurd about the culture of violence and patriarchy that produces these atrocities. If we laugh at perpetuators of violence, it is only because we know that they don’t deserve to be taken seriously. Or maybe it is because, as Titus says, we “have no tears left to shed.”
Photos by Teresa Wood
- Titus Andronicus: Nello DeBlasio
- Demetrius: Charlie Ainsworth
- Bassianus/Publius/Goth Soldier/Quintus: Chema Pineda-Fernandez
- Young Lucius/Mutius/Nurse/Aemilius: Cori Dioquino
- Saturninus: Daniel Flint
- Tamora: Christina Marie Frank
- Chiron/Martius: Tyler Herman
- Aaron: Manu Kumasi
- Lavinia: Miranda Medugno
- Marcus Andronicus/Alarbus: Toby Mulford
- Lucius: Matthew Pauli
Artistic and Design Team
- Written by William Shakespeare
- Adapted and Directed and Co-Choreographer: Matthew R. Wilson
- Production Manager/Stage Manager: Sarah Conte
- Scenic Design: Ethan Sinnott
- Costume Design: Denise Umland
- Lighting Design: Michael Barnett
- Sound Design & Music Composition: Thomas Sowers
- Fight Direction: Casey Kaleba & Matthew R. Wilson
- Co-Choreographer and Blood Effects: Casey Kaleba
- Properties Design & Assistant Blood Effects: Kristen Pilgrim
- Mask Designer and Fabricator: Aaron Cromie
- Assistant Stage Manager: Kathryn Dooley
- Assistant Director: Rachel Spicknall Mulford
- Dramaturg: Natalie Tenner
- ASL Consultant/Interpreter: Dr. Lindsey D. Snyder
Disclaimer: Faction of Fools provided a complimentary media ticket to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10453.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.