He Said: PST’s TITUS ANDRONICUS Is Delightfully Ghastly Guignol

by Neal Newman

Rob Kahn in the title role of TITUS ANDRONICUS at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre through May 19. (Photo credit: John Bansemer)

Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s TITUS ANDRONICUS is actually a trip to the GRAND GUIGNOL, Paris’ smallest professional theater. From 1897 until 1962, this 280 seat venue produced unimaginably gory melodramas that not only advanced the art of stage makeup/special effects, but had an cultural impact that is still being appreciated around the world. This tiny space in the red light district of Pigalle, addicted thousands of Parisians and tourists, who could find release, of a sort, in stories of psychological torment, complimented by heads and other body parts being removed in increasingly imaginative ways. Eventually, the rise of slasher films caused the demise of the Parisian landmark, but theater fans around the world treasure the books, photos and mementos of a time gone by.

One of the bizarre elements of the original Paris building was that it was a converted chapel with cherubs, confessionals and other ecclesiastical architecture, that somehow enhanced the mood for the plays. The Shakespeare Theatre’s production, which is housed in the upstairs of a church, retains this feel. Lisi Stoessel’s set resembles a gothic church, with many small curtained windows to create a puppet show. The musical score blasts organ fugues, and Natalia de la Torre’s costumes are Victorian Penny Dreadful, with an occasional piece to suggest the play’s actual setting of ancient Rome. The program states that two gallons of stage blood are used nightly.

GRAND GUIGNOL translates as “big puppet” or “adult puppet play”, and while the original theater inflicted violence on living actors, director Aaron Cromie has designed puppets to fill out the otherwise underpopulated cast. These puppets which have unique faces and costumes, are great fun with tiny hand senators for the crowd, and larger “Bunraku” dolls for the supporting players. Many scenes are enacted behind a special screen using Asian shadow puppets.

The result is a ghastly delight. Unlike the original GUIGNOL this version will trigger no fainting spells or heart attacks. The approach is definitely tongue-in-cheek with the actors and audience having a great time as Titus gains his revenge by baking his daughter’s rapists into a pastry and serving it to their mother. The response is especially electric when Titus enters the banquet dressed as a French Chef.

The large cast has been cut to seven players, not counting puppeteers, and they have a blast playing these paper thin characters, though Titus and Tamara are obviously too young to be parents of the many grown children. Jared McLenigan, is a sleazy delight as the witless emperor. The GRAND GUIGNOL claimed that their approach was realistic, but surviving photos resemble THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, with outrageous poses and near whiteface makeup. So it is here. The swift evening is under two hours without an interval.

The one problem with this production is Shakespeare. Betwixt the special effects and the puppets, we have Shakespeare’s play, and as the plot and verse unfold, we can see why many critics have insisted that someone as talented as Shakespeare could never have written TITUS ANDRONICUS. The plot is impossibly complex, and the verse bears little resemblance to the glories of the later plays. No wonder the Paris Theater featured 15 minutes horror plays followed by a farce.

I highly recommend this production, but please allow a few suggestions when you attend. Arrive early enough to read the synopsis that the theater has kindly added to the program. Even those who know the play will be befuddled by sweet Lavinia in love with one puppet, then being raped by two puppets in a shadow show where they then fall into a hole. Not that it matters.

A little research into theater lore will definitely increase your enjoyment of Cromie’s ‘petite guignol’. The website grandguignol.com is a great place to start.

Finally, the theater is a tiny three sided thrust, but be certain to sit in the center, as I missed too much of the fun on the side.

Many thanks to Aaron Cromie, and the Shakespeare theater for opening this page of theater history. Even if you aren’t a theater-history buff, don’t miss it.

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Aaron Cromie
Through May 19, 2012
In repertory with 12th Night at
The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre
2111 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103
215-496 9722

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