Sunday, February 7, 2016


By Toby Zinman



By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

I had been dutifully watching the trailer for Philly Shakes’ new production of Titus Andronicus, listening to Aaron Cromie, who is directing it, burble on, talking-head style, about going to graduate school, blah blah blah. And then his head started to bleed. And  the blood gushed down his face, and still he talked. This, I said to myself, is going to be a Titus Andronicus to remember. And so it was.

Rarely performed because of its impossibly gruesome events, Titus Andronicus includes three be-handings, one be-tonguing, many beheadings, and an assortment of rapes, gougings, stabbings, slicings, bloodlettings, and  cannibalism.   It is so wildly, ridiculously excessive, that the danger of parody lurks in every scene. Add to this a convoluted plot and a huge cast of characters and you have Shakespeare’s first tragedy, a nearly unplayable play on the contemporary stage.

But Aaron Cromie, known primarily as a puppet and mask-maker, has found a way to play it, and a very good way it is.  Using Grand-Guignol style (a throwback to 19th c. Parisian puppet shows), he has made forty puppets, some handheld, some shadow puppets, which share the stage with a superb cast of actors.  They  manage to be both shocking and funny and moving alternately, providing all the gore and posturing and over-the-topness any production could wish for.

The story takes place in Rome, “a wilderness of tigers.”  Titus Andronicus (Rob  Kahn) has just returned as a war hero, having conquered the Goths and brought back in chains their lusty, conniving queen, Tamara (Caroline Crocker) and her evil lover, the Moor Aaron (Davon Williams).  Offered the emperor’s crown, Titus  refuses it, yielding to the claims of the malevolent Saturnius (the outstanding Jered McLenigan).  When Lavinia (Lesley Berkowitz), Titus’ lovely daughter, is ravished and mutilated,  madness, mayhem  and revenge follow. 

Rounding out the cast are Ian Sullivan as Lucius and Johnny Smithas Marcus, with the unseen puppeteers Kienan McCartney, Eileen Tarquinio, Andrew Webb and Victoria Rose Bonito. Hats off to Lisi Stoessel’s splendid set and Michael Cozenza’s fight direction. 

Among the production’s many  remarkable accomplishments is to bring the whole show in in under two hours, the cutting of the text having done no perceivable harm. It’s a take-no-prisoners, no-intermission approach, barreling along relentlessly and triumphantly.

Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St. Through May 19. Tickets $25-35. Information: 215-496-8001 or


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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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