It was a gamble for Court Artistic Director Charles Newell to stage “Titus Andronicus” as a play-within-a-play black comedy. In this modern-dress adaptation of Shakespeare’s original, Newell imagines the denizens of an elite country club-like clique “reading” the play for their entertainment—scripts in hand are periodically referenced throughout—and initially treating the macabre machinations with mock pretense. It’s as if Newell concluded that it would be unrealistic to expect modern audiences not to laugh at the overkill of barbarity in a work that includes rape, dismemberment, self-amputation and cannibalism, and decided to beat them to the comic punch, creating a “Titus” that labors over bits of slapstick comedy, encourages puerile ad-libbing from the actors and seems to elevate the ridiculousness and emptiness of the violence to the level of its grotesquerie. This is a bold idea and one that might have worked had this vision been applied consistently through the bitter (and bloody) end. But following the scene in which Titus’ daughter is raped, has both hands amputated and her tongue cut out, Newell shifts emotional gears and the production suddenly seems to want its audience to care, to consider the play’s philosophical dimensions on violence and compassion—that have all but been dismissed thus far—and to inorganically go from a state of irreverent jocularity to Senecan stoicism. It feels like a directorial cop-out, as well as insulting to the intelligence of the seasoned theatergoer and irresponsible towards the Shakespearean newcomer. In performance the rhythm is lost (the last forty minutes feels like four hours), the spectacle feels empty (the spectacular architectural set is by Leigh Breslau and music is taken from Peter Gabriel’s mesmerizing soundtrack to “The Last Temptation of Christ”), a talented ensemble is wasted (a fantastic mix of ethnicities and experience) and poor Timothy Edward Kane in the title role makes a scant impression. Given the audience’s lack of emotional and psychological investment about the only impression Mr. Kane unwillingly makes is that physically he seems much too young for the part, often considered a test run for Lear, and that he lacks the necessary gravitas because either he is incapable of it or never could have hoped to achieve it amidst such meaningless pomp and circumstance. A failed experiment in confusing meta-theatrics, “Pointless Andronicus” would have been a more befitting title for this gamble that never pays off. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
At Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, (773)753-4472. This production is now closed.