A press release for the Puppet Shakespeare Players’ Puppet Titus Andronicus announces, first and foremost, that one of the show's producers is Dee Snider of Twisted Sister fame. As though that's not eye-catching enough, the press release hails this production as a “fresh, comedic take on Shakespeare’s ‘worst’ play.” Whether Titus Andronicus may fairly be dismissed as the “worst” play in the Bard’s canon is matter for debate; but this early tragedy is undoubtedly Shakespeare's most gruesome. So filled with horrors is the plot that Charles and Mary Lamb omitted it from their classic collection of Shakespearean tales for young readers.
Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, perhaps in collaboration with George Peele, near the beginning of his career and possibly as early as 1591. The lurid plot, chockablock with adultery, murder, rape, dismemberment, and cannibalism, follows the tradition of Renaissance revenge tragedy. Many years after Titus, Shakespeare would transform the materials of English revenge drama into Hamlet, the most masterful revenge play of all time. Titus, with dramatic construction as gangly and ill-coordinated as an 11-year-old kid, shows little indication that this fledgling playwright is the genius of Hamlet. It's not hard to understand why the youthful, energetic Puppet Shakespeare Players approach Titus Andronicus with a lack of reverence.
In creating Titus, Shakespeare relied on several sources, most notably Ovid’s story of Philomela and her sister Procne, wife of King Tereus of Thrace. Tereus rapes Philomela and excises her tongue to prevent her disclosing what has happened. Philomela outsmarts Tereus by chronicling her misfortune in a tapestry and sending it to Procne. The sisters get revenge by killing Tereus’s son and serving his flesh, disguised in a culinary treat, to the unwitting father. Ovid’s tale ends in metamorphosis: when Tereus tries to kill the sisters, all three are transformed into birds. Shakespeare's tragedy utilizes the elements of Ovid's tale minus the mystical conclusion.
Events in Titus Andronicus are so unrelentingly gruesome that imaginative stagings have often repelled play-goers. When Lucy Bailey’s production opened at Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank of the Thames earlier this year, the London Times reported that “the stage blood and mutilation” were “so realistic” that “spectators were dropping like flies.” Under Ryan Rinkel's direction, Puppet Shakespeare's Titus substitutes whimsy for horror. Adam Weppler employs appropriate swagger as Titus, the brilliant military strategist devoid of talent for life on the home front; and Sarah Villegas lends similar extravagance to the role of Tamora, wily Queen of the Goths, who wreaks havoc when brought to Rome as part of Titus's spoils of war. But the humans of this Titus Andronicus are upstaged by their fuzzy puppet colleagues. The real stars of the piece are the villain, Aaron the Boar (Aaron the Moor in Shakespeare's original), agilely manipulated by puppeteer A.J. Coté, and ingénue Lavinia, animated with remarkable vigor by puppeteer Mindy Leanse.
This production of Titus dispenses with Shakespeare's first act, summarizing the action in a hip-hop inflected song. Much of what remains in the abbreviated text of this Titus is lost in haphazard declamation or chaotic staging. The Puppet Shakespeare adaptation consists largely of loathsome acts perpetrated on charming, Henson-esque puppets. The incongruous combination of gore and charming, plush creatures is arguably a commentary — rudimentary commentary, but commentary nonetheless — on the overheated materials of Renaissance revenge tragedy.
At some moments during the show's two hours, it's tempting to speculate that Shakespeare, who was always mindful of the groundlings, might applaud the ribaldry of Puppet Shakespeare's take on Titus Andronicus. But it's pointless to rely on Puppet Shakespeare for anything in the way of insight about the Bard or the nature of tragedy. The slapstick of their Titus is relentless; the actors have at their disposal an abundance of silly string, which is supposed to be puppet puke. That's enough to keep most of the audience in stitches all evening.
Puppet Titus Andronicus, inspired by William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, presented by The Puppet Shakespeare Players and STT Productions/Dee Snider at the Beckett Theatre (410 West 42nd Street) ran until August 16.