“Titus Andronicus” is Shakespeare’s first and, arguably, worst tragedy. In 1678, English dramatist Edward Ravenscroft referred to it as “indigested… a heap of rubbish.”
It is Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most violent tragedy as well, which is why, in 1765, scholar Samuel Johnson deemed the work “unstageable,” and theater companies have agreed ever since.
And, because of its uncharacteristic barbarism and inferior writing, “Titus” is the play that likely launched the centuries-old rumor that some of Shakespeare’s plays may well have been penned by playwright Christopher Marlowe, essayist Francis Bacon, adventurer Walter Raleigh, dramatist George Peele, William Stanley, the sixth Earl of Derby, or Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford.
Indigested. Unstageable. Uncharacteristic. And now playing at Cleveland Public Theatre.
Actually, what is playing is a revisited, reinvented world premiere of “Titus Andronicus,” filtered through the wonderfully demented mind of adapter/director Craig J. George. The result is the guilty pleasure that is “Titus: A Grand and Gory Rock Musical.”
“Limbs are torn off, tongues are cut out … and everybody sings,” announces the production’s promotional poster. Yes they are, yes they do, and sometimes in that particular order.
There is no escaping the fact that Shakespeare’s text, such that it is, lies at the heart of this production, around which all of George’s modifications revolve.
“Titus” is set during the later days of the Roman Empire and tells the fictional story of Titus Andronicus (Dana Hart), an honored general in the Roman army. Titus has returned to his family (Amiee Collier, Justine Kunstler Zapin) from war, accompanied by his prisoners Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Alison Garrigan), her deranged sons (Val Kozlenko and Pat Miller), and her secret lover, Aaron the Moor (Lawrence Charles). Upon learning that few of his sons have returned from battle alive, Titus sacrifices one of Tamora’s sons, thus enraging Tamora – who has married the Emperor Saturninus (Matt O’Shea) – and setting off the bloody cycle of revenge and retaliation that drives the play and kills nearly everyone in it.
To this, George has added original songs by Dennis Yurich and Alison Garrigan, who have performed in the similarly irreverent “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “The Rocky Horror Show,” and whose influence is heard here. A superb, slightly visible band that consists of Brad Wyner (conductor, keyboards), John Fitzpatrick Pringpuangkeo (guitar), Tim Pringpuangkeo (upright and electric bass) and Richard Kline (drums) provides the music, augmented by Jon Conley, a strolling minstrel with a wailing electric guitar who sets the subversive tone from the get-go in the song, “Revenge Served.”
George also has embellished the dark humor of Shakespeare’s occasionally clever wordplay and, with the assistance of Jenniver Sparano’s Goth costuming, Todd S. Krispinsky’s post-apocalyptic set design and Ben Gantose’s eerie lighting, imbues the production with a modern, industrial sensibility. Carlton Guc’s sound design enriches everyone else’s work when it chooses to be operational. Otherwise, words spoken on stage go by the wayside.
The guts and gore, of which there is plenty, come courtesy of P.J. Toomey.
The finished product on the Gordon Square Theatre stage is stylistically messy and the best one can hope for in a piece of post-hoc playwriting. This production is more makeover than overhaul, with assorted parts added on that do not always fit together comfortably or consistently.
Consequently, the play is deliciously over the top from time to time but not nearly often enough. The best of times is delivered by Matt O’Shea, as the wonderfully unbalanced Emperor Saturninus, and Pat Miller, whose quick switches between his good and evil characters are burlesque at its best. Justine Kunstler Zapin’s subtle antics as Lavinia are hilarious.
This adaptation also takes the original material very seriously upon occasion, but those occasions seem random, even arbitrary. Doing yeoman work on the Shakespeare-speak are Dana Hart as Titus and Lawrence Charles as Aaron the Moor.
When the dust settles, the epic journey that is “Titus: A Grand and Gory Rock Musical” turns out to be entertaining. So sit back and enjoy the folly you see before you in the guise of a bloody revenge story and classic tragedy. After all, how many people in the last 400 years can actually claim to have had fun watching this play?
WHAT: “Titus: A Grand and Gory Rock Musical”
WHERE: Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Saturday, March 22
TICKETS & INFO: $12 to $26. Call 216-631-2727, ext. 501 or visit www.cptonline.org