”14 killings, 9 of them on stage, 6 severed members, 1 rape (or 2 or 3 depending on how you count), 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity, and 1 of cannibalism” is how critic S. Mark Hulse sums up William Shakespeare’s vengeance-fueled Titus Andronicus, and Coeurage Theatre Company gives us each and every one of the above in a mere two hours (including intermission) in Jeremy Lelliott’s exhilarating new adaptation of Shakespeare’s contribution to the “revenge play” genre, redubbed Andronicus to befit this leaner, zippier incarnation of the 16th-Century classic.
Ted Barton is the titular Roman general, whose four surviving sons (TJ Marchbank as Lucius, Gabriel Di Chiara as Quintus, John Klopping as Martius, and understudy Raúl Bencomo as Mutius) are all that’s left of a brood that once included 25 male offspring, though it doesn’t take long for that number to once again shrink.
But I get ahead of myself, so let’s go back a bit.
Returning home from 10 years of war against the Goths, Andronicus and his brother Markus (Brian Abraham) bring back in tow a number of bigwig POWs: the glamorous Goth Queen Tamora (Rebekah Tripp), her sons Demetrius and Chiron (Christopher Salazar and understudy Paul Romero), and her lover Aaron The Moor (Anthony Mark Barrow).
Though offered the Roman Emperor’s crown himself, a war-weary Andronicus bestows it to the late Emperor’s elder albeit callow son Saturninus (Mark Jacobson), who promptly weds the evil, power-hungry Tamora, and when I say evil and power-hungry, I mean evil and power-hungry, since before you know it, Tamora’s two strapping boys have killed Saturnius’s younger brother Bassianus (Doug Harvey) and raped his sister Lavinia (Katie Pelensky). Not just raped, but sliced out her tongue and chopped off her hands, the better to prevent her from ratting on her rapist-mutilators.
And this is only the beginning of a murderfest culminating so many rapid-fire slayings that it makes Hamlet’s grand finale of corpses seem tame by comparison.
Over the top? I’ll say it is, and something that director-adapter Lelliott recognizes, which is one reason his Andronicus makes for such crowd-pleasing entertainment.
That’s not to say that Lelliott and his cast don’t know when to play it dead serious. They do, and the superb Barton and the sensational Tripp create two richly-conceived and executed characters you’ll be talking about long after the last heart has stopped beating.
Still, with one player after another getting stabbed, speared, strangled, and/or beheaded, Coeurage Theatre Company’s gifted Artistic Director knows too when to play it darkly comedic, as whenever the fabulous Jacobson’s acceleratingly out-of-control Saturninus takes center stage.
Supporting performances are absolutely terrific each and every one, with special mention due Pelensky’s tragic, mostly mute Lavinia, Abraham’s commanding Marcus, and Barrow’s seductive Aaron, the tiptop cast completed by Nardeep Khurmi (Makus’s son Publius), John McKetta (Tamora’s son Alarbus, Beggar), and Katelyn Gault (Nurse), with Bencomo returning post Mutius’s demise as Roman noble Emilius.
Lelliott’s inspired touches begin pre-show with shirtless, war-grimed soldiers taking time off the battlefield to play cards and other assorted games and to engage in an improvised percussion-fest as the audience takes their seats, and continues in the Act Two-opening “dumb show,” which fills us in on what’s been taking place while we’ve been out for intermission, just one of the clever ways Lelliott has trimmed down Shakespeare’s original text by about 40%.
Director and cast benefit enormously from as exciting a production design as you’ll see in any L.A. theater the size of Coeurage’s fantastic new home, Silverlake’s charming Lyric Hyperion Theatre and Café.
Most impressive of all is Joseph V. Calarco’s supremely dramatic sound design and pulsating musical soundtrack. Kara McLeod’s period-meets-modern-meets-funky costumes are winners as well as is Dean Cameron’s simple but striking scenic design, lit to electric perfection by Tito Fleetwood Ladd.
And then there’s fight director Marchbank’s thrilling stage combat, as realistic-looking as it gets whether with swords or knives or fists. Tiffany Cole gets high marks for her choreography as does Jessi Rivera for her makeup design.
Emily Goodall is stage manager. Abigail Marks is assistant director, M. Jennings Turner assistant fight director, and Jaemyeong Lee production intern. Sammi Smith is text coach.
You don’t have to be a Shakespeare lover to love Coeurage Theatre Company’s Andronicus, though it does help not to be too turned off by the thought of multiple murders, mutilations, and British pasties spiced with human flesh. (Those who cringe at the thought of blood can at least rest assured that there’s little or no fake plasma in sight.)
As any frequent StageSceneLA visitor will have gathered, this reviewer can take Shakespeare or leave him (and more often the latter than the former) but I had a bloody good time watching the bodies pile up in Andronicus. And that’s about as good a sign of a crowd-pleaser as they get.
Lyric Hyperion Theatre And Cafe, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silverlake.
July 25, 2014
Photos: Robert Campbell