A Dish Best Served Cold

You have to give the American Globe Theatre a “G” for guts—for taking on Titus Andronicus, which, despite its popularity in its time, is now frequently dismissed as William Shakespeare’s weakest (and it’s certainly his most despised) play. Guts also happen to be a big part of the play—at least in the manner and speed with which they’re spilled. Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s bloodiest work and probably his earliest revenge tragedy. Students at the University of Liverpool have dubbed it the bard’s “Quentin Tarantino Play” because so many characters die, or are raped or tortured in barbaric, grotesque and improbable ways. The critic S. Clark Hulse estimates that an atrocity occurs every 97 lines. Much of the story, and its main focus, is far older than Shakespeare, so we can’t blame him for all the brutality. Much of the tragedy is derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and its portrayal of the rape of Philomela.

The venerable literary critic Harold Bloom once famously opined that Titus Andronicus could only be played as a farce and vowed that he would only see it again if Mel Brooks directed. Too bad he’s missing this one because, for the most part, John Basil’s American Globe Theatre plays it straight and it goes quite well as a direct, albeit psychotic, drama. Mr. Basil follows the script where it leads and wisely leaves it to the audience to decide whether or not it’s parody.

Titus Andronicus elicits sniggers and eye rolls because the play’s militaristic Roman and Goth characters exact continuous revenge on one another, constantly upping the bloody ante, until the heinous acts turn blackly humorous. Eventually, warring factions greedily and unknowingly consume the cooked remains of family members in pies. Mr. Basil gives the humor its due (i.e., we’re allowed to laugh) but he refuses to let it get out of hand, keeping tight reins on the story and the gore.

Once again, the commanding American Globe Theatre staple Richard Fay steals the show as Titus Andronicus. Powerful, intimidating, convincing, Fay is a consummate Shakespearean actor. You can’t take your eyes off him, and the other actors orbit around him gracefully. Also notable in the 16-member cast are Jon Hoche as a fierce Lucius, Lamont Stephens as the inexplicably and irredeemably evil Aaron, and Nick Vordeman as the whiny, weak-willed and humorous emperor Saturninus.

Once again, the American Globe Theatre maximizes a small space and employs a flexible stage to great benefit. Two projection screens at the top of either side of the two-storey stage frame the action. When the action takes place in a forest, a black and white sketch of a forest scene might appear. It’s a very effective strategy where elaborate stage changes are not practical.

Unlike other productions, and in spite the photo that accompanies this review, the theatrical blood is used quite sparingly. This is a good thing when so many people die horrific deaths. Mr. Basil smartly removes our gaze from the machinations of the horrors and places our concentration on the fact that they do, indeed, occur; the actors dispatch most of the deeds with quick, choreographed and graceful strokes. We are left not with the horror of that graphicness but rather with the horror that one could do such things to another human being - and that one can spend time plotting endless, total revenge. The bard’s derided tale really has enormous significance for our fractured, vengeful age.

I recommend the play to anyone who is curious about this underperformed Shakespearean oddity. The mere existence of Shakespeare in today’s Times Square is remarkable and The American Globe Theatre is still the best theater bargain in the area.

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