Puppets in Review- Titus!

Drama of Works- Titus!

HERE, New York, NY
July 4, 2003

review by Donald Devet

The play swings crudely from one declamation of revenge to another until the stage floor is littered with body parts and blood.

The exclamation mark in the title of this play is not an affectation. There’s good reason for infusing the one word with dramatic punch. For this play is none other than an adaptation of Shakespeare’s earliest and rawest tragedy, “Titus Andronicus,” the revenge play to end all revenge plays. You might be familiar with the story from Julie Taymor’s 2000 film adaptation. If you are, you know that watching the story requires a strong stomach. By the time it’s all over the sheer number of mutilations and deaths makes Hamlet look like an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.

Perhaps the excessive bloodbath and the crude bombast are what lured Drama of Works into mounting this interesting production, but Titus! is a problematic adaptation. First off, such an adaptation requires actors who can recite Shakespeare with intelligence and a feel for the verse. Because, above all else, language is what propels and lifts this story. With various degrees of success the actors in ‘Titus!” work their way through the text. Some seem to be struggling with the unfamiliar rhythms, rushing and mumbling, while others do just fine wrapping their tongues around the lines of one of the few Shakespeare plays which lacks familiar quotes. But the unevenness of performance is what undermines and eventually weakens “Titus!” This is not a play with puppets but a play with actors. And those actors need to be experienced enough to make the language sing, with or without puppets.

Sure, there are plenty of puppets in “Titus!” but only a few moments in which they’re given a chance to come into their own. Even though puppets are prominently displayed– strapped to the front of almost every one of the nine actors like some sort of cancerous growth–they remain, for the most part, emotionally inert. Maybe it’s because their faces are featureless, providing us few clues to their inner thoughts. Only when they flail their arms, kick their little feet and twist their papier-mache heads left and right do the puppets simulate any sense of life. Although the puppets end up getting stabbed, mutilated, decapitated and cannibalized, it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for torn apart rag dolls if they haven’t been imbued with life to begin with. Maybe the play’s liberal use of carnage was the only justifiable reason to use puppets in the first place. Puppets can be great stunt doubles, taking all the abuse with no complaints and nary a scratch and coming back the next day to do it all over again.

In this adaptation, we don’t have to guess who’s going to live or die. The puppets and actors come on stage marked up like so many branded cattle. Those characters with bull’s-eyes on their chests or groins are eventually going to end up sprawled across the stage floor; actors without puppets end up on their feet. If we already know their fate, where’s the fun in that? I suppose this adaptation shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Its campy feel is reinforced by mod rock and roll music that occasionally punctuates major scenes. And in spite of the archaic language, the style of the production is contemporary. Puppets occasionally high-five each other and actors are costumed as if they had just enjoyed a spending spree at Urban Outfitters.

Direction and head puppet design is by Gretchen Van Lente who is no stranger to adaptations of classics and political satire. As executive director of Drama of Works, Van Lente has already tackled an eclectic range of stories, from Doctor Faustus to a Punch and Judy version of Sid and Nancy Vicious. There’s nothing wrong with taking on an ambitious project, the equivalent of a seven course meal. No puppet company gets anywhere by just serving appetizers. But for this six-year-old company, Titus! is a tricky dish to serve well and may be difficult for an audience to digest.

Because “Titus Andronicus” is one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, it lacks the maturity and depth for which he is so famous. Only a few moments give us a glimmer of the experienced playwright Shakespeare was to become: the poignant death of the “black ill-favour’d fly,” Titus shooting message laden arrows into the heavens, and Aaron’s fatherly tenderness toward his bastard offspring. The rest of the play swings crudely from one declamation of revenge to another until the stage floor is littered with body parts and blood. Such carnage was probably great fun for an Elizabethan audience to whom violence and death were very much a part of life. But today this story seems adolescent and too much over the top. Come to think of it, “Titus!” might appeal to today’s devotees of the video game, “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” where wholesale slaughter is revered and having a conscience is unheard of.

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