Don't be fooled by the complimentary earplugs handed out at the door. Despite a terrific premise—a punk rock adaptation of Shakespeare's goriest (and, reportedly, most popular) play, Titus Andronicus—Fugly Productions's Titus X: The Musical never becomes the earsplitting, cutting-edge spectacle it promises to be. Punk rock would seem to be the ideal medium for Titus, a play that boils with anger and revenge, but repetitious music and a poorly balanced sound system turn the production into a wall of gratuitous noise and performances that, like the distorted sound, lack nuance and precision. The first 15 minutes of the show (and many moments thereafter) are virtually unintelligible, as the vocalists and the band compete for supremacy. A brief prologue sets up Titus's entrance, and four performers chant his name with robotic diligence as the victorious warrior returns to Rome. With most of his sons slain in the war, Titus murders the eldest son of Tamora, queen of the vanquished Goths—ostensibly a religious sacrifice—and launches a series of violent acts that escalate as the play proceeds.
Director Peter Sanfilippo provides the simplistic staging. The three-piece band (guitar, bass, and drums) dominates the stage, and the actors run off and on to emote behind microphone stands. A screen set up behind the band serves as a backdrop, and although the multicolored abstract projections create spooky lighting effects as the actors walk across the stage, they are overwhelmingly generic, forming mottled geometric shapes and skull patterns. Sanfilippo also designed the costumes, a mishmash of punk and goth apparel—dangerous-looking boots, mohawks, crucifixes, and fishnet stockings.
Shawn Northrip, a graduate of New York University's Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program, created Titus X, and his book, while faithful to Shakespeare's plot line, lacks the richness of the Bard's language. Although a scene that uses a single word (an expletive that begins with "f") creates some unexpected humor, it stands at odds with the rest of the production, which drowns in plot exposition and questionable rhyming ("And though you're sweet, this is just a piece of meat," sings Tamora).
Northrip's music is a respectable batch of punk rock, with strong bass lines, guitar riffs, and explosive drumming. The dense compositions, however, offer little variation as the show progresses. Still, there are a few standouts. The lyric "I wanna get in ya, Lavinia," sung by Tamora's sons before they rape and disfigure Titus's daughter, pulsates winningly when crammed into a short, jumpy song, its perky beat bringing relief from an otherwise blandly loud and forgettable score.
The idiosyncracies and affectations of punk rock find their way into Titus X with varying degrees of success. Northrip's songs often end with an exclamation point—an ambiguous, abrupt ending that provides a neat transition but quickly loses effect with repeated use. The actors' performance styles also replicate the self-involved pose of many punk performers—hands wrapped tightly around the microphone, intensely gazing off into the distance, lost in their own world. Although this despondent posturing may work for rock musicians, in a theatrical production it reads as sullen and closed off, stripping actors of the ability to communicate with each other as well as depriving the audience of watching a dynamic exchange of energy. No amount of frenetic dancing can make up for it, nor can copious head-banging—could this be, I began to wonder, an alternate form of clapping for oneself?
The six performers sweat and emote prodigiously. Peter Schuyler brings a fiery presence to Titus, outfitted in a hip military jacket with thick black lines drawn under his eyes like a football player blocking out the bright stadium lights (which may or may not be the point, as Titus moves into deep darkness). Ben Pryor and Joe Pindelski (of last year's Fringe success The Banger's Flopera) bring valiant energy to a variety of roles. As Titus's doomed daughter Lavinia, Laurie Davis unfortunately recalls a tormented Britney Spears (or any other misguided teen queen).
Dwayne Thomas is fine as the kilt-clad Aaron, but it is Francile Albright who makes the strongest impression as Tamora. With her black-rimmed eyes burning with malice, Albright makes the most concerted effort to communicate and connect to the other performers. She can rock out with the best of them, but she makes it clear why and to whom she is screaming.
With the potential to be a polemic on war and violence, Titus X never creates much of a stir. "No one is free when others are oppressed," the ruler Saturninus attests, but the production, mired in blood and noise, ultimately refuses to explore this sentiment. Tucked into the tiny (and, fair warning, un-air-conditioned) Tank, Titus X finally registers as nothing more than a group of cocaine-snorting performers singing for themselves. And with so much violence and heartlessness on display, this is a script that begs for more sensitive and responsible attention. Otherwise, it becomes merely a cascade of violence for violence's sake—in which case you'd be better off using those earplugs after all.