In the final scene of Darko Tresnjak's skillfully re-imagined "Titus Andronicus," more than a dozen people on stage are killed in a strangely beautiful dance of death, with red paper fans opening to the sounds of a slowly dying heart. It's an imaginative piece of stagecraft from the talented director of the Old Globe's Shakespeare Festival.
Tresnjak's "Titus" takes Shakespeare's brutal and often clumsy early revenge tragedy and maintains the pathos while infusing it with hilarity and an appropriately outlandish sense of its excesses. The play is Shakespeare's bloodiest, featuring a host of explicit, on-stage murders, severed limbs, rape, cannibalism and general mayhem, madness and confusion.
The director takes a page from such contemporary comic-horror gore fests like the "Scream" trilogy -- and in fact throws in a reference -- to lighten up all that carnage with over-the-top absurdity.
There are hints of parody from the get-go. The soundtrack: "Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone: A comedy tonight!" from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Tresnjak makes comic use of various Broadway show tunes and one "so bad it's good," groan-inducing snippet of a Beatles' song.
"Titus" isn't often performed on stages these days, and it's largely because, as an early work, the text just doesn't hold up to Shakespeare's more complex and intelligent later tragedies. But it's also because the overindulgence of violence doesn't play well for modern audiences.
So it makes sense to take it toward parody.
As the play opens, the emperor of Rome has died, and his two sons -- consummate politicians in sharp suits and accompanied by teams of headset-wearing handlers -- are vying for the throne. Instead, the people choose Titus Andronicus, warrior and tool of the state. He modestly declines the crown, and hands it over to the elder son, the shifty Saturninus (Wynn Harmon) -- his first mistake.
Titus, who has just returned from 10 years of warfare with the Goths, has only four of 25 sons remaining. He also brings prisoners in tow: the Goth queen and her sons (in their skivvies for added insult). Despite the queen's impassioned appeal, Titus has her eldest son executed -- his second fatal mistake -- setting off the cycle of bloody vengeance that courses through the play. Tamora vows revenge upon all the Andronici (no, really, it's Latin plural), and gets that chance when in a strange twist of fate she becomes empress of Rome.
Celeste Ciulla cleans up nicely as Tamora and transforms into a strutting vision of lust in a tight-fitting red suit and stilettos. Her sex appeal is matched only by her cold, calculating singularity of purpose -- revenge. Tamora and her Moorish lover (Owiso Odera, deliciously wicked) devise elaborate schemes to exact revenge, framing two Andronici sons for the murder of the emperor's brother (Karl Kenzler) and precipitating the rape of Titus' daughter.
Leonard Kelly-Young is a complex title character, cold and unmoved, seemingly mad, worn out and beaten, yet with a sense of vengeance strong enough that allows him to bide his time. His revenge (for Tamora's revenge) culminates in the final bloodbath, in which Titus, donning chef's uniform and tall white hat, serves up Tamora's own sons to her on a plate of sushi.
And as the bodies pile up, the level of absurdity ramps up. Tresnjak keeps the killings representational, finding all sorts of creative ways to indicate spurting blood, from red confetti to powder to string.
Yet the tragic elements are still tragic, and the rape of innocent Lavinia (Melissa Condren, sympathetic and lovely) engenders pity. And when her uncle Marcus (the excellent Charles Janasz) enfolds her in his arms, his poetic speech is the play's most moving.
Though decidedly fun and nearly silly at times, there remains a strain of serious contemporary resonance in Tresnjak's staging, assisted by Linda Cho's modern costumes (desert fatigues for the soldiers, designer suits for the politicos, urban street-wear for Tamora's lusty, feebleminded sons). Most intriguing, the question of what becomes of those tools of the state, once they are used up and thrown aside by the very government that enlisted them in the dirty work. What happens when the atrocities of war are brought home?
Though there may not be much in the way of meaning or deep insight into the human condition -- violence begets violence, the cycle of vengeance ends in death to all, yadda, yadda -- this "Titus Andronicus" tickles and terrifies with an excellent cast and Tresnjak's stunning vision.
PROGRAM: "Titus Andronicus," by William Shakespeare
Organization: The Old Globe
Dates: Through Sept. 30
Show times: Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., in repertory with "Othello" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Location: Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, The Old Globe, Balboa Park
More information: (619) 23-GLOBE, www.theglobetheatres.com
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