through April 28 | Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St. | 407-447-1700 | orlandoshakes.org | $20-$40
Though it was the Bard’s most popular play during his lifetime, Titus Andronicus fell out of favor for more than two centuries and still struggles for recognition from today’s theatergoers. It’s considered so obscure (aside from the excellent 1999 Julie Taymor film adaptation) that Orlando Shakespeare Theater has included a spoiler-filled synopsis in the program. But don’t let unfamiliarity stop you from enjoying this stylistically striking revenge tale. With cannibalism, bondage wear and brimming buckets of blood, Shakes’ latest show is certain to shake up your view of Shakespeare.
Unlike Will S.’ subplot-stuffed later plays, Titus is fairly straightforward. Victorious general Titus Andronicus (Jonathan Epstein) returns to Rome after a costly war with conquered Goth queen Tamora (Jean Tafler) in tow, and turns her over to freshly crowned Emperor Saturninus (Greg Jackson). For reasons that are never adequately explained, the emperor repays Titus’ loyalty by plotting with Tamora to destroy his family. Her sons Demetrius and Chiron (Matthew Natale Rush, Greg Joubert) and paramour Aaron (Esau Pritchett) engineer the rape and mutilation of Titus’ chaste daughter, Lavinia (Kelly Kilgore), among other atrocities, eventually driving the weary warrior to mouth-foaming vengeance.
Sound designer Britt Sandusky sets the head-banging tone with between-scene bursts of Marilyn Manson and Limp Bizkit, while Lisa Zinni’s "modern fashion–meets–Mad Max" costumes could have stepped out of Walter Hill’s The Warriors. And special note must be made of the special effects, which range from shockingly realistic and chortle-inducingly chunky to vividly symbolic.
Under director Jim Helsinger, these gory proceedings are leavened by bawdy gallows humor and bold characterizations that resemble a Tarantino remake of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Every time the broadness – Saturninus’ mustache-twirling tantrums, Tamora’s Disney-villainess vamping – threatens to go overboard, Epstein and Kilgore’s heartbreaking relationship reels us back in.
While it lacks the poetry of Romeo and Juliet or the psychological depth of Hamlet, Titus has the passion and gonzo production values of a cult-favorite exploitation flick. It should appeal strongly to a younger audience that doesn’t often attend the Bard; I just can’t wait to see what the Shakes’ bluehaired patrons make of it.