I had been dutifully watching the trailer for Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre's new production of Titus Andronicus, listening to Aaron Cromie, who directs 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 is.
Rarely performed because of its impossibly gruesome events, Titus Andronicus includes three behandings, one betonguing, many beheadings, and an assortment of rape, gouging, stabbing, slicing, bloodletting, 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 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-century Parisian puppet shows), he has made 40 puppets, some handheld, some shadow puppets, which share the stage with a superb cast of actors. They manage to be alternately shocking and funny and moving, 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 Saturninus (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 Johnny Smith as Marcus and Ian Sullivan as Lucius, 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 in the whole show in less than 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.
Through May 19 at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St. Tickets: $25-$35.
Information: 215-496-8001 or www.phillyshakespeare.org.
Follow Toby Zinman on Twitter at #philastage. Read her reviews at www.philly.com/phillystage.