Theater review: With Faction of Fools’ ‘Titus,’ an audience sees red


Nello DeBlasio as Titus, from left, Matthew Pauli as Lucius, Miranda Medunga as Lavinia and Toby Mulford as Marcus in Faction of Fools Theatre Company’s “Titus Andronicus.” (Handout/Teresa Wood)

In this case, blood is slicker than writer.

The writer in question is one William Shakespeare, composer of numerous masterpieces, and also “Titus Andronicus.” It is this turgid, pulpy revenge tragedy — the one in which the ingenue’s tongue and hands are lopped off and the perpetrators end up as the opposite of a Happy Meal — that the commedia dell’arte troupe Faction of Fools has decided to tackle.

And, as you might expect, the company has a lot of fun with the Grand Guignol aspects of “Titus” — even if it can’t find similar inspiration in the long stretches of exposition that bog this enterprise down, in its debut run at Gallaudet University’s Eastman Studio Theatre.

With so many cutlasses and other shiny blades applied to the task during the two-hour, 15-minute production, you’re compelled to wonder whether a few of them could have been used more effectively on the text. The demands of Shakespeare’s language don’t go away in a production stressing the physical, even one hewing as earnestly to the exaggerated behavior and masked characters of commedia as does director Matthew R. Wilson’s visually arresting version.

That the words are defined as deftly as possible may even be more important when they’re not the Bard’s best. So what seems a fairly straightforward assignment, filtering bombastic, undistinguished “Titus” through the caricatures of commedia, turns out to be harder than it looks. The uneven results mirror another transposition of “Titus Andronicus” several years ago, when composer Shawn Northrip and director Shirley Serotsky turned it into a Fringe Festival punk-rock musical, “Titus X.”

Then, as now, the material works best when it is an excuse for veins to open. The minute you walk into the performance space, you know what you’re in for, and not just because a sign is posted for audience members in the first few rows warning that the substance about to be liberally spilled can be washed out of clothing. The smartly geometric set by Ethan Sinnott is another tip-off: It is spotlessly white.

But not for long. Wilson’s panache comes on this occasion in liquid form. Blood will soon be spurting — mercilessly, merrily, messily — all over Denise Umland’s white costumes, which seem to benefit from super absorbency. Working with choreographer Casey Kaleba, who’s usually credited in programs for fight direction but for “Titus” is cited as master of “blood effects,” the director achieves sanguineous bliss. Enough permutations of gory violence occur for a patron to develop a best-of list. I call my top three:

1. The fruit roll-up.

2. The faucets.

3. The pizza box.

Going into any more detail would be patently unfair. Let’s just say that each of these represents a great, grisly sight gag and earns a blessed guffaw. (Honorable mention goes to Manu Kumasi, who as wholly disreputable Aaron does some of the best skewering you’ll experience outside of a kebab house.) The bloodshed is of a cartoonish variety, rather than the more upsetting sort that seems to be going on at the moment in “Titus Andronicus” at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, where theatergoers are reported to be swooning regularly.

To Thomas Sowers’s bristly music, Wilson’s production dutifully records the heads (and other extremities) that roll after the Roman general Titus (Nello DeBlasio) returns to the imperial city with the captured Goth queen Tamora (Christina Marie Frank), who bewitches the new emperor, Saturninus (Daniel Flint). It is Titus’s daughter Lavinia who suffers most dreadfully in the carnage that ensues. The director has the fine notion of casting a deaf actress, Miranda Medugno, as Lavinia, in part because the question arises of how she might communicate the identity of her mutilators, who have cut out her tongue and severed her hands.

“I can interpret all her martyred signs!” declares the grieving Titus.

The cast, while energetic, is called on to juggle a lot here, and at times a sense of the characters’ relationships is sacrificed to the necessity of simply getting through a lot of outsize gesturing and unwieldy plot. Some surgical trimming would perhaps sharpen the focus and permit the humor to, er, really flow.

Titus Andronicus

Original play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Matthew R. Wilson. Set, Ethan Sinnott; lighting, Michael Barnett; costumes, Denise Umland; original music and sound, Thomas Sowers; masks, Aaron Cromie; choreography, Wilson and Casey Kaleba; American Sign Language consultant, Lindsey D. Snyder; blood effects, Kaleba. With Chema Pineda-Fernandez, Toby Mulford, Charlie Ainsworth, Tyler Herman, Cori Dioquino. About 2 hours and 15 minutes. Some performances are ASL-interpreted or provide open captioning. Tickets are $15-$25. Through June 22 at Eastman Studio Theatre, Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Ave. NE. Call 800-838-3006 or visit titusandronicus.brownpapertickets.com

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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