Most people know “Titus Andronicus” as Shakespeare’s grimmest and bloodiest tragedy. That reputation has persisted, given that a typical staging glosses over certain ridiculous passages to focus on the carnage.
The omissions include an extended back-and-forth during which three characters argue over who should cut off his own hand and a slapstick moment in which one man tries to help another out of a ditch, only to get pulled in. In another scene, the title character exits the stage with a head in his hand after instructing his daughter — handless and tongueless — to carry his detached hand between her teeth.
“This is the kind of thing that, if you’re trying to do the serious tragedy of ‘Titus Andronicus,’ you struggle with how to not make it seem dumb,” says Faction of Fools artistic director Matthew Wilson.
Wilson’s solution: Let it be dumb.
Just as it did with its uproarious take on “Romeo and Juliet,” the commedia dell’arte troupe is putting a decidedly humorous spin on “Titus.”
Wilson first came up with the idea of producing “Titus” in 2001 while in Italy studying commedia dell’arte, the 16th-century theater form often distinguished by masks, improvisation and stock characters. He was learning about “opera reggia,” over-the-top tragedies set in royal courts that were inspired in part by the ancient playwright Seneca, whose characters baked people into pies, among other grisly deeds.
“And I’m watching these scenes thinking, ‘Titus Andronicus’ makes sense to me for the first time ever, because it’s that same sort of Senecan tragedy,” Wilson says. “[It’s] not just outlandishly violent, but outlandishly stupid, even as written.”
This “Titus Andronicus,” however, isn’t all about getting laughs. There are still tragic moments, but they exist within a world of pratfalls and exaggerated repartee. And Faction of Fools is doing it without taking significant liberties with the text.
The story follows a respected Roman warrior who returns home after battling the Goths. He sets into motion a series of grim events involving severed limbs, heads and tongues and a high body count. But with its absurdist inclinations, it’s the kind of dark humor that paved the way for Quentin Tarantino. And just as in “Kill Bill,” the blood will be flowing by the gallon.
“It’s all fun and games until someone loses a hand,” jokes actor Nello DeBlasio, who plays Titus.
Fight choreographer Casey Kaleba is handling the blood effects, which entail more than 100 feet of surgical rubber tubing, five recipes for stage blood and more logistics than Kaleba has ever encountered. He has to make blood seep, spurt, smear and drip. But there’s one thing the blood must not do: stain the all-white costumes and set. The Jackson Pollock-style splatters have to be completely washed out by the next performance.
“I was interested in this idea of a safe, sanitized, strict, spotless Rome,” Wilson says. “This is an empire of violence, but we don’t normally do it where we live. We do it where other people live. Until the day when Titus comes back from the war and things start going wrong.”
Faction of Fools might be taking an unorthodox approach to the play, but perhaps that’s what Shakespeare had in mind. “I really honestly think people who have a hard time understanding Shakespeare will be pleasantly surprised,” says actor Matthew Pauli, who plays Lucius. “They won’t have any trouble understanding. And it won’t be our take on it. I think this is the play.”
Through June 22. Gilbert C. Eastman Studio Theatre, Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Ave. NE. 800-838-3006. www.factionoffools.org. $25.