Titus All Rightus!
Titus Andronicus has always bothered Shakespeare scholars, some of whom simply refused to believe that the great man actually wrote the blood-drenched monstrosity. In his famous Tales From Shakespeare, Charles Lamb noted that Titus was "not acknowledged" by the critics whose assessment of dates he used, "nor indeed by any author of credit." Later thinkers reluctantly acknowledged Shakespeare's authorship but have suggested that Titus was a rewrite of an older and much worse play. Others, defending the tragedy, pointed out that there are lots of corpses in Hamlet and King Lear, as well as spurious gore, and that Greek tragedy is full of rape, murder and cannibalism. Harold Bloom, on the other hand, believes that the play is an intentional parody, a Shakespearean sendup of rival playwright Christopher Marlowe. In any case, almost nobody stages Titus these days. Audiences are too apt to titter at the forgettable merry-go-round of posturing, declaiming characters, betrayals and counter-betrayals, and the cascade of murders and mutilations.
But the folks at Buntport Theater have figured it out. They're presenting Titus Andronicus as Titus Andronicus! The Musical. Why has no one ever thought of this before? It means that when Titus is told he can save the lives of two of his sons by chopping off his hand (don't ask -- it wouldn't make sense even if I gave you more context), we get a stirring masculine trio as he, his brother and another (currently unendangered) son compete for the honor of self-mutilation, complete with stirring choruses and natty little rhythmic steps. "Nay, come, agree whose hand shall go along," says evil Aaron, who has set this all up, "for fear they die before their pardon come." And when Titus, having killed the wicked Tamora's wicked sons, makes plans to bake their heads and serve them in pastry to their mother, he flourishes a knife in his remaining hand and musically debates the recipe in a zesty French accent.
This is Titus Andronicus as staged by Professor P.S. Goldstien -- aka Brian Colonna -- and four actors, out of the back of a van that occupies Buntport Theater's cavernous and otherwise empty playing area. Each actor plays more than one of Titus's several dozen roles, and there's a helpful placard with pictures, names and lightbulbs that get turned on and off during the action so you can figure out who's playing whom at any given moment. There's also a chalkboard to track the corpses. This doesn't mean you can actually follow the twists and turns of the plot -- it's hard to do that in any production -- but it does give you a broad idea of what's happening, which is all you really need.
The van is tricked out with immense ingenuity. One side is painted like a forest, the other like a building. Canvases slide up and down inside the door, platforms are pulled from the side and back. Periodically, the entire cast gets together to push the vehicle from one place to another. They do this with energy, élan and high good humor, so that a fall or mishap becomes part of the performance. It isn't just that Buntport's is an interpretation of an inexplicable piece of our literary inheritance (and for all its lunacy, it is an interpretation). It's that the approach to the work -- the collaboration and improvisation with which it began -- is valid theater in itself. You see the way the group has chosen to present a particular speech, but you also see how the actor speaking it stumbled (or strolled) into his interpretation and what he now feels about it. There's Shakespeare's text, and there's also Buntport's commentary -- overt or implied -- on that text.
Objects take on a life of their own. In the night scenes, a stuffed owl perches on the van's rearview mirror. When someone comments that "the leaves are green," several skeletal umbrellas, their spokes covered with leaves, unfurl. Blood spurts, dribbles and pools. Tamora's sons, Demetrius and Chiron, are represented by a gasoline can and a car radio; their speech comes courtesy of Erik Edborg, who acts as their puppeteer. Later, the human-flesh pies speak, too.
Buntport Theater is the creation of several graduates of Colorado College -- Brian Colonna, Erik Edborg, Hannah Duggan, Erin Rollman, Matt Petraglia and Samantha Schmitz -- who create their theater pieces collaboratively. Colonna, Edborg, Duggan and Rollman are the performers in Titus, along with Muni Kulasinghe. You want to see them at work, because this production is clever, inventive, and one of the funniest evenings of theater around. It's also definitive. Which means you'll never have to go see Titus Andronicus again.
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