Faction of Fools Titus AndronicusBy David Siegel • Jun 4th, 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
Shakespeare certainly knew how to make an audience squirm. “Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, Blood and revenge are hammering in my head” says Aaron, a key figure in Shakespeare’s rarely produced Titus Andronicus that just opened in DC.
But, this production is by the scrappy Faction of Fools theater company with a go-for-broke, unmuted “commedia dell’ arte” vision. For those not familiar with the Faction of Fools, it is the 2012 Helen Hayes Recipient of the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company in the DC area.
Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare’s most chilling, violent, quite unsubtle bloody tales full of honor killings, revenge killings, infanticide, and any number of chopped-off limbs and dismemberments. Nothing much comic in that.
What is the storyline? Titus Andronicus is a fictional Roman general who returns from a decade of war with most of his sons dead on the battlefield. In his victories for the Roman Empire, he has captured Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her three sons as well as Tamora’s lover, Aaron the Moor.
From this start, the blood-fest moves forward with the characters seeking vengeance, advantage and survival to the point of self-mutilation. “If there were reason for these miseries, then into limits could I bind my woes” says Titus after much carnage.
Titus is an operatic play that spins and twists into a bloody cyclone of madness not unlike epic movies with a Vietnam War era mentality such as the “Godfather I & II” or “Apocalypse Now.” Few are left standing as the tragic goings-on finally end. Ah, but his is a Faction of Fools production.
Adapted and staged by Matthew R. Wilson, the Faction of Fools has respected the play’s grisly bones but added a veneer of comic touches to coat the bones and make them a bit more palatable. Wilson and his troupe have not made Titus into a Mel Brooks farce, or a late night comedy act but used their special brand of masked antics, tongue-in-cheek mannerisms and speech along with plenty of double-entendre laden physical movements touches, sitting right along-side the eviscerations. It is as if there is the written text with theatrical components filtering and shifting the words into new meanings.
The Titus set design by Ethan Sinnott is a constructed imperial city that fills the stage at the Elstad Annex at Gallaudet University. There are multi-level play areas, doorways for entrances and exits along with several trap doors and well-positioned windows. It is painted a luminous pure white made even brighter by the white-hot lights from Michael Barnett. Over the course of the performance the pure white becomes a crimson red abstract expressionist canvas of blood splotches, splatters and swirls courtesy of designer Casey Kaleba.
Costume designer Denise Umland has the cast outfitted in white as well, which also takes on a crimson hue. Apropos of “commedia dell’arte,” the actors wear hand-crafted, half masks also in white fabricated by Aaron Cromie. Props are a perverse amusement done up to gratify the most fervent Grand Guignol fane. There is such creativity in the exaggerated manner of showing amputated limbs and other body parts and flowing blood that is sophisticated and cartoonish, and perhaps not for everyone. I will not look at a spigot or a dark quiet pool quite the same again.
Actors who make strong impressions include Miranda Medugno as Lavina, the ultimate victim, who loses hands and tongue after she is raped. Medugno, who is pursuing a Master’s degree in Sign Language Education, brings her “silenced” character into dramatic light and intensity. She draws us to her with her entire being. She is the moral, non-comic center of Titus.
As Tamara, Queen of the Goths, Christina Marie Frank vamps her way through the proceedings. She is physically impish and cunning. Her words, both straight and humorous, are darts that sting all in good fun, well as best fun as can be given her nasty character.
Aaron The Moor is played by Manu Kumasi with a vigorous strut and fire in his eyes. He even gives off a subtext as to why he is so villainous. Nello DeBlasio’s Titus is a madman who loudly whines for attention. DeBlasio plays his Titus as someone on speed with Munchausen by proxy syndrome. Other male characters also have a too-rushed approach to their deliveries. Demetrius (Charlie Ainsworth) and Chiron (Tyler Herman) deserve note for their manner of accomplishing dastardly deeds using both spoken words and ASL in a helter-skelter duet.
Faction of Fools marketing material notes, “Faction’s fifth season ends with a shriek, as we bring you the funniest version yet of Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. In the Fools’ darkly comic take, something wicked becomes something wickedly delightful.” Well, I would not go that far.
Your reviewer marvels at what Wilson and the Fools have accomplished with their audacious take of rushing rivers of blood and carnage. It is up to you and your own gimlet eye whether to buckle up and take this Titus in. It will challenge you to find your pathway past lines such as: “Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?… Ay, that I had not done a thousand more” to find and appreciate the comic touches. It is all a matter of one’s tastes.
I guess humor can be found even in Marlon Brando’s last line in “Apocalypse Now,” “The horror, the horror.”
NOTE: No late seating. Appropriate for ages 13 and up. Select performances ASL Interpreted. Open Captioning available upon request.
(Editor’s Note: Due to a scheduling mixup, ShowBizRadio sent two reviewers to cover this production. See Bob Ashby’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/10449.
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.