CLEVELAND: For those who enjoy their severed body parts in zip-locked bags and their rock ’n’ roll raw and rowdy, Cleveland Public Theatre’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus might be just your cup of blood.
Titus: A Grand and Gory Rock Musical, conceived and directed by Craig George, is at once a tragic exploration of the corrosive human impulse for revenge and a rollicking piece of entertainment along the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The show’s music and choreography owe more to the Rocky Horror of the 1970s than they do the play’s late Roman Empire setting or the playwright’s Elizabethan England. That’s not surprising given that the music was co-written by Alison Garrigan, who has played the roles of Janet and Frank-N-Furter in past productions of Rocky Horror, and who plays Tamora in this production.
The songs capture the emotional highlights of the text nicely and are performed with a rock ’n’ roll authenticity that is rare in stage musicals. Simple guitar phrases with vintage sounds, organ pads and an unprocessed drum kit echoing against the backstage walls give the music a winning garage-band feel. The musical director is Brad Wyner, who also plays keyboards.
The composers, Garrigan and Dennis Yurich, have played in bands including the Deadward Goreys and their current ensemble Queue Up, and manage to somehow make their score sound like a live band rather than a show band reading through charts.
The source material, Titus Andronicus, has long been among the least performed and most controversial of the works attributed to Shakespeare.
The play opens with the Queen of the Goths, Tamora, watching her son be sacrificed by the Romans. The play is built around a series of escalating revenge plots stemming from this initial carnage, featuring rape, murder and mutilation, and ending with a stage strewn with blood-spattered bodies.
Titus Andronicus was popular in its day, but fell out of favor for centuries, as more delicate sensibilities found the nearly constant gore too shocking for a respectable audience. Some scholars were so appalled that they even questioned the authorship of the play. Poet T.S. Eliot famously remarked that it “is one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all.”
In the mid-20th century, some scholars began to reconsider the work and productions became more common. By 1994, Julie Taymor had staged a well-received production in New York and it was adapted into a movie in 1999. In the past decade there have been several musical versions of the play, although the scores are unrelated to this one.
Of course, in the guise of a campy musical production, there is no need to take a definitive stand as to the merits of the original play. The text is used in the way that old pop recordings are sampled and re-orchestrated to make hip-hop. Is that homage or parody or both? In most cases the answer seems to be: who cares if it works?
CPT’s production of Titus, with its goofy costumes and over-the-top staging, manages to have its fun while making Shakespeare’s disturbing drama play in a way that engages the audience emotionally.
Director Craig J. George explains his interpretation of Shakespeare’s text: “The combination of comedy and tragedy, and the plotline itself, is so bizarre, but in some ways, very relatable. These kinds of things are still happening — revenge cycles — and they were happening back then, almost 1,500 or 2,000 years ago, all the way to ancient Rome. The revenge cycle, once it gets started, just feeds itself. That is ultimately what this play is about; the origins of violence.”
Revivals of old plays often tell us more about how we see ourselves now than they do about the intentions or values of their authors. This production, with its epic body count driven by intolerance for those perceived as “other,” seems a natural fit in today’s world rife with genocide, torture and tribal revenge — not to mention partisan politics.