Titus Andronicus is, in my opinion, Shakespeare’s stab at the action genre: endless senseless violence ranging from de-tongue-ing to (spoiler alert) forced cannibalism of one’s own children. As opposed to a play like Macbeth, where the gore is tempered by musings on madness and fate, this particular tragedy is more like an Elizabethan 300. While the Bard tried to cater to the lowest common denominator by serving up amputation and human pies galore, today audiences seeking such entertainment can just turn to the movies. So how do theatre-makers make four-century-old brutality entertaining today? For the Puppet Shakespeare Players, by giving it the Avenue Q treatment.
One of the things that makes me something of a nuisance to fellow viewers at the theatre is my laugh. It is loud, obnoxious, and often occurs at times when the rest of the audience remains silent or at most produces an appreciative titter. This is because, as a theatre student, I’ve amassed a random pile of knowledge in the arts, and certain elements of productions I see resonate with what I’ve learned. And whenever I experience that “Oh I see what you did there” moment, I can’t contain myself.
And so I apologize if you were sitting anywhere near me at Puppet Titus Andronicusand your evening of verse, furry creatures, and silly-string “blood” was marred by my frequent guffaws at the puppet-centric jokes. This spring I took a class on puppetry and learned all about what defines a puppet and how to work with them; but by far my favorite aspect of puppet performance is metatheater, or the puppeteer referencing the fact that she is using a puppet. I find art most thrilling when it takes advantage of whatever it is that makes it special; the Neo-Futurists, for instance, fully embrace the liveness of theatre in their show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind by inviting the audience to participate in some of their mini-plays and going along with whatever goes down. For me, Puppet Titus Andronicus finds its comedy by commenting on both the essence of puppetry and the essence of the Shakespeare tragedy.
Like any good Shakespeare parody this production pokes fun at the stage conventions of the Bard’s plays that make less sense now. In one scene in Titus, the other characters onstage busy themselves so that one of the primary villains can reveal his evil plans directly to the audience--something that given their proximity the other characters would definitely hear. In this production, Titus turns around and asks, “What was that about deceiving me?” and Aaron covers by saying, “Just an aside, just an aside.” In keeping with Shakespeare’s style, Titus--a human actor playing a human--ignores this suspicious behavior and follows through with (spoiler alert) the removal of his own hand as requested by Aaron--an actor with his right arm operating the mouth of a Muppet-esque boar puppet and his left arm acting as the boar’s left arm. Titus goes to place his newly-severed hand in the boar’s right hand, which is fixed to the puppet’s body; Aaron looks down at the furry arm and says, “This one doesn’t really work.”
Try as I might to describe the moments that had me in stitches, these physical gimmicks are best seen live. On top of the built-in puppet-based humor the actors also improvise a lot of the dialogue, which not only gives you the chance to laugh at actors making their fellow actors laugh, but also guarantees the experience of Puppet Titus Andronicus will be truly unique.