Titus Andronicus has the reputation of being William Shakespeare’s bloodiest work, so it should surprise no one familiar with the play or the Commedia del’Arte troupe Faction of Fools that the latter’s version of the former comes with a splash zone. When entering the theater, audience members are warned that sitting in the first three rows might result in splatter. No kidding. The pristine white set and costumes don’t stay clean for long, quickly becoming a canvas for the darkening hues that catalog the ever-rising body count.
Not that we mourn for these ambitious and conniving characters when they meet their violent ends. Although Titus is considered Shakespeare’s first tragedy, director and co-choreographer Matthew R. Wilson has transfigured it into a dark comedy, the better to take in a cruel and unforgiving world with a spoonful of sugar.
The cruel world of Titus Andronicus is Rome, right after its armies have defeated the Goths and taken its royal family hostage. The execution of a Goth prince is the first death in a string of bloody deaths that only get more frequent and more creative. The plot winds throughout, but all you really need remember is that everyone’s got beef with each other and it’s burger time.
The staging is consistently clever, the jokes Tarantino-esque: Throughout, actors pop up from stage doors, and one bizarre scene has three men squirting blood out of their fresh wounds to “Blue Danube.” The actors wear traditional white makeup and Commedia dell’arte masks, a distance-making mechanism that makes laughing at all the onstage killing somewhat less guilt-inducing. In a nod to the troupe’s host, Gallaudet University, Lavinia (Miranda Medugno) and Demetrius (Charlie Ainsworth) sign rather than speak. The choice to have these two characters sign is the result of much consideration from Wilson and the Faction troupe of the original text. Lavinia makes sense as an outward manifestation of her struggles to be understood throughout the play. Why Demetrius, a minor antagonist, is signing is a less clear choice, muddying the play’s rumination on whether being understood can help you defend yourself.
As a character, Lavinia spends most of the play as a rope in other people’s tugs of war. And while many characters get fairly expedient deaths, Lavinia’s is far more painful and drawn out than most. It’s uncomfortable to play her hardship for laughs when it remains unclear what, precisely, the punchline is. The ridiculousness of the machismo that leads to her assault is laughable if disturbing. The physical comedy of characters trying to get used to their new stumps for hands is surprisingly funny. A traumatized rape survivor with her father’s dismembered hand in her mouth? Not as funny. While the no-limbs-barred approach mostly pays off, it never seems quite sure if it’s underlining the absurdity of violence or glorifying its excesses.
It’s no wonder Wilson has compared the original play to Saw. His take on Titus is also torture porn, but more like a Saturday Live parody version. Good thing, then, that most of the time Faction gets us to laugh at its violence and question ourselves for laughing—we, too, are complicit in the carnage.
The play continues at the Eastman Studio Theatre at Gallaudet University to June 22