Relatively few Shakespearean productions begin when a wizened puppet peers out at the audience, disappears behind the curtain, and starts playing a tiny pipe organ. But the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater has chosen to stage their Titus Andronicus in the style of Grand Guignol (the early-20th-century French macabre melodramas) with puppets in the style of the original Guignol (the popular French puppet show and its eponymous star) and this brilliant combination gives their production a bold and memorable style while perfectly exploiting every aspect of one of Shakespeare’s most maligned plays.
The original Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was formerly a chapel, and clearly the inspiration for Lisi Stoessel’s set design: the dark backdrop of Gothic arches and heavy velvet curtains combined with the theater’s already intimate size produces an atmospheric claustrophobia. The center arch opens up to form the largest entryway, but also hosts a shadow screen for when shadow puppetry depicts stylized sequences that might be otherwise difficult to stage; the flanking arches provide smaller curtained doors and windows suitable for the production’s bunraku-style and hand puppets. The grandeur of the set is visually arresting but not distracting, with each element contributing to the Grand Guignol style.
The costuming by Natalia de la Torre continues the Grand Guignol conceit while calling attention to the fact that it is a conceit. The actors sport 19th-century-inspired costumes and heavy, stylized stage make-up, while certain characters also add token classical accents, usually right on stage. This transparency is used to good effect. Jered McLenigan’s Saturninus, for example, from the beginning sports the dandy jacket and carefully painted beauty spots of the fop and dons imperial garments as the play advances, at a rate inversely proportional to how imperially he is actually behaving: an actor playing a stock character who is himself desperately trying to play a leading role. If there is one flaw with the costuming, it is that the puppets themselves are not clothed with similar complexity. Their costumes are as classically-inspired as Titus’ armor or Marcus’ toga -- the equivalent classical touch for their puppeteers -- but they simply aren’t that interesting, and in some cases the different puppets are not readily distinguishable from each other.
The puppets are probably the most striking members of the cast, though typically not the most important ones: they double human characters as shadow puppets, play secondary characters, and provide crowd scenes. Some are operated by unseen puppeteers (Victoria Rose Bonito, Kienan McCartney, Eileen Tarquinio, and Andrew Webb) while others are animated by actors in multiple roles (puppet or otherwise): Davon Williams as Bassianus (puppet) and Aaron (human), for example, or Ian Sullivan’s filial roles as Chiron and Demetrius (twin puppets) and Lucius (human). The puppeteers’ performances are eminently watchable, if not exactly groundbreaking on their own. The most notable performer/puppeteer is Lesley Berkowitz as Lavinia: flesh-and-blood in the first acts, her emotional and physical trauma from Chiron and Demetrius’ rape and torture is represented by her transformation into a literal object of grief. Lavinia’s mutilation is both actual and metatextual -- Berkowitz’s own hands are hidden in the workings of the scarred and bloody puppet, whose mouth is always silent and shut -- and Berkowitz gives an excellent simultaneous performance as puppet and puppeteer of a victim of nearly unimaginable violence struggling with the consequences of the crimes against her.
The spectacle of the puppets and the production’s Grand Guignol inspiration, however, never overwhelms the strong performances of the central characters. In a play that encourages, even demands, melodrama and scenery-chewing, Caroline Crocker as Tamora manages to counterbalance her performance as a (metaphorically) mustache-twirling villain by evoking genuine pathos at the beginning of the play, when the Queen of the Goths pleads for the life of her son. Crocker brilliantly conveys this as the only moment when Tamora is not playing a role (either consciously as Saturninus’ “dutiful” wife or unconsciously as an unbowed queen in exile, almost completely unaffected by her tragedies), and this memory of heartfelt anguish anchors all of Tamora’s roaring rampage of revenge. In contrast, Rob Kahn as Titus Andronicus himself always seems to be playing his character as, well, in-character: Titus completely believes in his own performances, even as he does a complete 180 from his role as duty-bound warrior to the mad revenger. He’s his own puppeteer, and Kahn undershadows the character’s constant spot-on bombast with a sense of the ambiguity of Titus’ own awareness of his act.
Titus Andronicus, with its sensational story and thirteen deaths (nine of which are on-stage), is a play that rewards excess, but director Aaron Cromie has wisely recognized that it cannot consist solely of spectacle for spectacle’s sake. The visuals may be epic, but both the text and the dramatis personae are slightly streamlined, and the production cracks along without an intermission for a two-hour run time. Cromie establishes his limits (wide-reaching though they are) almost immediately, when the puppet organist turns suddenly from a spot of comic relief into the provider of the show’s extremely fitting overture, and the actors process out in costume and make-up, solemnly don the rest of their costumes and make-up, and prepare their puppets for performance. Each moment of vastly entertaining slapstick or black humor is countered by grandiose melodrama, and the possibly jarring appearance of the puppets is offset by the further complexities of the knowledge that there are actors playing actors who are playing characters putting on their own performances. Cromie balances all these elements perfectly and gives them all equal weight, culminating in the revelation that the political power struggle in a Shakespeare play may be resolved by one character beating another to death with a pie pan that had formerly held the remains of two cannibalized puppets, and that this not only makes sense, but seems entirely appropriate. Cromie’s Grand Guignol conceit gives the spectacle of Titus Andronicus shape and direction, admirably realized by the cast and crew, in a perfect complement to Shakespeare’s first and most extreme tragedy.