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A victorious general with a row of safety pins where his medals should be. A Goth queen who fingers her ripped fishnet stockings while vowing revenge. A bipolar emperor with a pierced nipple and spiky hair. A leading lady who not only has stumps where most ingenues have hands but is also tonguelessand consequently renders her big ballad as “Ewww errr ahhh ewww errr.” What’s not to love about Titus: The Musical?
Actually, it’s possible to quibble about tone, but Shawn Northrip’s punk-infused Titus Moronicus take on the Bard’s most idiotic tragedy is clever enough to ride roughshod over most objections. If gore, rape, cannibalism, and infanticide are your cup of bile, Shirley Serotsky’s spare, scattershot staging at the Source Theatre is sufficiently graphic, energetic, ear-splitting, and comic to qualify as a romp. At two hours plus, it’s a tad attenuatedshorn of a half-hour of punk posturing, it could be an intermissionless hootbut it has some deliciously ripe performances, not to mention a raft of catchy punk ditties, to recommend it.
From the moment the camouflage-attired Titus (Jason Stiles) arrives home from his campaigns abroad (“Hey Rome, I’m back”) with a vengeful Goth queen (Marybeth Fritzky) in handcuffs as a trophy, it’s clear there’s trouble brewing in the empire. Caesar has died in Titus’ absence, and when the crowd tries to name him emperor, the modest general defers not to Caesar’s sensible, virtuous son Bassanius (Evan Omerso) but to his libertine brother Saturnius (Joe Pindelski), who promptly weds the Goth queen and sets a nasty series of revenge plots in motion. Soon, with much encouragement from the queen’s studly slave/lover Aaron (Tyee Tilghman), her dimwitted sons embark on a plan to kill Titus’ dimwitted sons (a neat trick, because the same two actorsOmerso and Pindelskiplay all the evening’s sets of siblings). They also get goaded into raping Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Patricia Hurley)a task they accomplish while singing a rousing chorus of “I Wanna Git in Ya, Lavinia” and after which they chop off the dear girl’s hands and cut out her tongue so she can’t rat them out.
From there, things get gorier and (if you’re of a mind to laugh along) funnier. The comic climax is pretty definitely Lavinia’s entirely unintelligible solo, which occurs earlier in the evening than it would if Northrip were creating the plot from scratch rather than adapting the Bard. You can almost feel the adaptation trying to top itself thereafter, and though you have to credit the author with a degree of inspiration where carnage is concerned (Northrip even kills off the band’s bass player at one point), he can’t entirely finesse the fact that the second act’s deaths are more convoluted than comic. With a cast of six and more than a dozen corpses called for, the staging has to get pretty tricky by the finale, and the aforementioned tone wavers considerably. Still, Serotsky and her company are nothing if not game, and the energy level remains high throughout.
So does the quality of the music, which blends garage-band stylings with echoes of Rent and Jesus Christ Superstar to arrive at something that’s decently persuasive in the hands of a three-piece band comprising local minor lights Boinkee (late of Crankcase), Derrick (Branch Manager) Decker, and Jake (Yuk) Jackovitch. I won’t pretend to know these guys in their nontheatrical incarnations, but the opening-night crowd clearly did, and there was much shouting and singing along during what amounted to a preshow warm-up concert. Earplugs are offered a few moments before the lights dim for the show, by which time you’ll have a decent idea of whether you’ll want them.
If punk Shakespeare seems a stretch, it’s not really as aberrant in Broadway terms as the bluegrass musical currently at Gunston Theater II. Rock and the Bard are longtime companions, with a relationship going back to at least 1971 and Joe Papp’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but try to name a musical that more than dabbled for a song or two in bluegrass.
The American Century Theater, which mostly dedicates itself to resurrecting what it considers unjustly neglected works, has unearthed a 1975 trifle called The Robber Bridegroom and is giving it a robust, if less than entirely persuasive, second chance. I caught the original on Broadway with Barry Bostwick in the title rolethis was before Rocky Horror made him famousand my recollection is that the music was bouncily nondescript, the staging peculiar.(I remember a woman repeatedly cawing like a raven and flapping her arms.) Overall, though, I can’t say it made much of an impression.
I doubt that the revival will stick with me, either, though it’s perfectly serviceable. Director DeAnna Duncan has devised a wax-museum framing gimmick I don’t recall from the original: As the audience enters, the actors are mostly in diorama-style poses, from which they’re released once the show begins to animate several yarns told by Jamie Lockhart (Brian Childers), the titular bridegroom. Alfred Uhry’s script is an adaptation of a novella by Eudora Welty, and they’re mildly amusing in a folksy, laugh-at-the-rubes sort of way. The central tale chronicles how backwoods robber Jamie develops a crush on a sweet, sheltered lass named Rosamund (Tara Garwood) and she on him. But when he poses as a respectable fellow to scam her father, and she poses as a hillbilly to avoid that match, neither of them recognizes the other, and things go briefly awry.
Duncan’s staging boasts a sharp piano-and-fiddle backup band and an energetic cast. But if you’re inclined to view even a couple of “yee haws” and “wee hoos” during dances as a couple too manyand I confess, I’m of that persuasion myselfthen the evening becomes tiresome. In a larger auditorium, perhaps the cast’s enthusiasm would be contagious, but at close range, it mostly feels strident.
That said, there are some nice moments. Every appearance of John C. Bailey as a boxed disembodied head is at least momentarily amusing. Brian Rodda makes sense of a character whose brain is said to be the size of a scuppernong seed with an appropriately blank grin and loads of enthusiasm. Childers is agreeably full-voiced, and when he isn’t counting out the steps assigned him by choreographers Sherry Chriss and Chrystyna Dail, he’s engaging as a leading man who blithely delivers a knockout punch to his girlfriend before having his way with her.
That, incidentally, is The Robber Bridegroom’s operative method for romance. Uhry and composer Robert Waldman devote more than one song to the joys of…well, of what I suppose you’d have to call consensual rape, reallya concept that will seem either oxymoronic or simply moronic, depending on how charming you find the package that contains it. CP