Shakespeare's Grand Guignol

Supply has a curious relationship to demand in New York theater, and it’s nowhere more perplexing than in the realm of Off and Off-Off Broadway Shakespearean productions. Last season, New York companies offered what must have been an unprecedented number of Shakespeare’s greatest hits (including four stagings of King Lear), but few, if any, of infrequently seen works such as Titus Andronicus. The current season, with its much lower Shakespearean quotient, has already yielded two Tituses. Go figure!

The first Titus was last autumn’s Puppet Titus Andronicus, an idiosyncratic entertainment, strictly for adults, in which plush, Henson-inspired puppets enacted episodes of sex and gore with generous amounts of “silly string” representing bodily fluids. Now the ambitious New York Shakespeare Exchange is presenting a more faithful, less fanciful version of the tragedy, adapted and directed by Ross Williams, the company’s artistic director.

Possibly written in collaboration with George Peele, Titus Andronicus follows the form and traditions of Jacobean revenge drama, with a plot that features all the feuding, murder, and rape one expects, plus some extra-gory embellishments such as dismemberment and cannibalism. Shakespeare’s most notable source for Titus is Ovid’s account of Philomela and her sister Procne, wife of King Tereus of Thrace. After raping his sister-in-law, Tereus cuts out her tongue to discourage disclosure of his dirty deeds. The mutilated Philomela outwits him by weaving her sad story into an accusing tapestry; and the sisters avenge Tereus’s villainy by slaughtering his sons, and then cooking and feeding their flesh to the unsuspecting father. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the sisters are transformed into birds to elude Tereus’s counter-vengeance. Shakespeare dispenses with the Ovidian magic, closing his tragedy on a body-strewn stage.

Titus Andronicus is clearly an early Shakespearean work: The dramatic construction follows closely the model of Senecan tragedy; the characters’ motivations are at times obscure; and the play’s violence rises to Grand Guignol gratuitousness. There’s little indication here that this playwright was destined, perhaps a mere decade later, to rework the raw materials of English revenge drama as Hamlet, the most masterful revenge play of all time.

Williams has set his adaptation in a carnival tent, with all the play’s action under the big top (imaginatively designed by Jason Lajka). The performance begins with a rambunctious, wordless prologue in which members of the company assail each other, killing one minute and being killed the next. It’s a dance of cruelty and death that sets the tone for everything that follows. At stage left is an old-fashioned livestock feed chute with a pull-cord that the actors jerk in order to punctuate violent attacks with the racket of corn kernels — thousands of them — rattling down the chute into a tin tub. The clatter from the noisy chute persists, accompanying each violent act, throughout the evening.

The youthful cast is headed by Brendan Averett, a formidable Titus, the Roman general whose pride and blind patriotism set the gruesome plot in motion. Gretchen Egolf, as Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and Warren Jackson as her lover, Aaron the Moor, give the evening's most extravagant performances, attacking the sinister lyricism of Shakespeare's verse with an operatic intensity that strays close to burlesque without quite crossing the line.

Last year, when Lucy Bailey’s production of Titus opened at Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank of the Thames, the London Times reported that “the stage blood and mutilation” were “so realistic” that “spectators were dropping like flies.” Such is not the case with the New York Shakespeare Exchange production. Here the violence, designed by fight choreographer Alicia Rodis, is stylized and largely bloodless; and costume designer Elivia Bovenzi manages to suggest mutilation and maiming imaginatively rather than explicitly. Nonetheless, the production is squirm-inducing throughout, as Williams and the rest of the creative team no doubt intend. It’s a powerful depiction of a realm in which cruelty is the norm and violence is inescapable. This Titus puts one in mind of video games and Hollywood action films — as well as much that's been chronicled on the front page of The New York Times during the first few weeks of 2015.

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare, adapted by Ross Williams, presented by New York Shakespeare Exchange, at the Main Stage Theater at HERE (145 Sixth Avenue; entrance on Dominick Street), runs through Sunday, February 8. Performances are from Tuesday to Saturday at 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets: $18. Running time is two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets may be purchased online at www.here.org or by calling 212-352-3101.

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