By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
I had been dutifully watching the trailer for Philly Shakes' new production of Titus Andronicus, listening to Aaron Cromie, who is directing it, burble on, talking-head style, about going to graduate school, blah blah blah. And then his head started to bleed. And the blood gushed down his face, and still he talked. This, I said to myself, is going to be a Titus Andronicus to remember. And so it was.
Rarely performed because of its impossibly gruesome events, Titus Andronicus includes three be-handings, one be-tonguing, many beheadings, and an assortment of rapes, gougings, stabbings, slicings, bloodlettings, and cannibalism. It is so wildly, ridiculously excessive, that the danger of parody lurks in every scene. Add to this a convoluted plot and a huge cast of characters and you have Shakespeare's first tragedy, a nearly unplayable play on the contemporary stage.
But Aaron Cromie, known primarily as a puppet and mask-maker, has found a way to play it, and a very good way it is. Using Grand-Guignol style (a throwback to 19th c. Parisian puppet shows), he has made forty puppets, some handheld, some shadow puppets, which share the stage with a superb cast of actors. They manage to be both shocking and funny and moving alternately, providing all the gore and posturing and over-the-topness any production could wish for.
The story takes place in Rome, "a wilderness of tigers." Titus Andronicus (Rob Kahn) has just returned as a war hero, having conquered the Goths and brought back in chains their lusty, conniving queen, Tamara (Caroline Crocker) and her evil lover, the Moor Aaron (Davon Williams). Offered the emperor's crown, Titus refuses it, yielding to the claims of the malevolent Saturnius (the outstanding Jered McLenigan). When Lavinia (Lesley Berkowitz), Titus' lovely daughter, is ravished and mutilated, madness, mayhem and revenge follow.
Rounding out the cast are Ian Sullivan as Lucius and Johnny Smithas Marcus, with the unseen puppeteers Kienan McCartney, Eileen Tarquinio, Andrew Webb and Victoria Rose Bonito. Hats off to Lisi Stoessel's splendid set and Michael Cozenza's fight direction.
Among the production's many remarkable accomplishments is to bring the whole show in in under two hours, the cutting of the text having done no perceivable harm. It's a take-no-prisoners, no-intermission approach, barreling along relentlessly and triumphantly.
Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St. Through May 19. Tickets $25-35. Information: 215-496-8001 or www.phillyshakespeare.org