My big takeaway from New Moon’s production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is that James Dale Green might have made a top notch Horror host. You know, like Memphis’ famous Sivad, or Professor Ghoul — the ghastly clowns that tell corny jokes and introduce scary-terrible horror movies on TV. That’s his function in this tonally inconsistent show directed by the usually reliable John Maness. But here’s the thing about theatrical conceits— if they require too much explaining, they’re probably a bad idea. And, although it’s done in the spirit of good fun, this is a plodding, weirdly pedantic approach to the Bard’s infamous contribution to the slasher genre, and it's all about explaining.
New Moon's take on Titus begins with the announcement of a terrible plane crash from which there are no survivors. Audience members (the passengers) are welcomed to Hell with the first of many monologues Shakespeare didn't write. All the players onstage are dead, we're told, and this performance functions as a kind of "welcome to the afterlife" for sinners. Adding creepiness to the concept, those killed on stage will actually die (again!). It’s a broad, hoaky device at odds with sincere, graffiti-covered scenic design, but not necessarily the general tone of a play that's hell-like and grossly exploitative to begin with. Throats, guts, and sundry major arteries are slashed. Hands are cut off before our very eyes. The problem is one of competition (between texts, new and old) and consistency.
The story is this, basically: Roman soldier Titus Andronicus returns home victorious, with Goth royalty as his prisoners. Politics happens, revenge is sought, and truly Gothic horror is inflicted on Titus, who goes a little mad, and gets a little crazy with his own payback. Characters are hacked, defiled, dismembered, baked into pastry, and eaten. This is Drive-In theatre Shakespeare-style, so New Moon’s stylistic choice makes a kind of sense. Maness is also clearly borrowing from a pair of Peters: Brook and Greenaway. The conceit that the characters are portrayed by spirits of the damned calls to mind Brook’s Artaudian Marat/Sade where asylum inmates played heroes and villains of the French Revolution. Having James Dale green hold onto a dusty book, and read all the minor character roles, echoes Prospero’s Books, Greenaway’s take on The Tempest with Sir John Gielgud reading all the roles. (Also, a little of this delightfully silly thing). All of these could be good ideas, if executed with any kind of consistency. But it’s hard to understand why only some characters appear undead, while actors playing larger roles (thankfully) play things completely straight. And from a practical POV, spicing up the stage with some lumbering zombies just makes “enter/exit all” a slower, messier process than it needs to be.
Green functions as narrator, commentator, and living Cliff’s Notes, sometimes jumping onto stage to provide insight into Shakespeare’s sources. His interruptions are often literally that, stopping any momentum the actual play might be building dead in its bloody tracks. It’s not the actor’s fault though, he does the best he can with intrusive dialogue that is so ill-considered in some cases, it pulls the whole production over into Ed Wood territory. For example, the first act doesn’t end with a Shakespearean cliffhanger, but with a newly crafted monologue summarizing the half and inviting audiences to enjoy refreshments at intermission.
The real tragedy here is that New Moon attracted a top notch cast, and there’s clearly a decent production of Titus Andronicus trapped inside a bubble of bad decisions trying very hard to escape. Greg Boller, Greg Szatkowski, Steven Brown, Lyric Malkin, Erin Shelton, and Jeramie Simmons all do solid work hinting at this show's unrecognized potential.
I’m no purist. I’d love to see Titus imagined as a Kung Fu feature, or as a full on rock concert in the spirit
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Greg Boller as Titus Andronicus.
of Alice Cooper or Gwar. I might have even loved to see a tighter, taunter version of what New Moon has done with this underperformed novelty. Still, one should change the name and adjust the authorship of classics sufficiently fucked with. “A Night in Hell with Titus and Tamora” would have altered expectations enough to soften (but not change) my opinion.
Having said all that, if you're looking for some silly Halloween carnage, but prefer something a bit more cerebral than a haunted house, there are many great parts pulled together in this Frankensteinian take on Titus. The whole is (appropriately, perhaps?) something of an abomination.