In Titus Androgynous, YoungLiars Paint Shakespeare With a Broad, Bloody Brush

Tamora (Maggie Conroy) and her paramour Aaron (Erin Renee Roberts) last longer than most in this production.
Tamora (Maggie Conroy) and her paramour Aaron (Erin Renee Roberts) last longer than most in this production. ​VALERIE GOLDSTON

Titus Androgynous

Written by William Shakespeare. Adapted and directed by Chuck Harper. Presented by YoungLiars through November 11 at the Centene Center for Arts and Education (3547 Olive Street; Tickets are $20.

In a minimally set, fourth-floor space that doesn't really even offer a stage, YoungLiars theater collective tries to wring every last laugh out of Shakespeare's grisly tale of revenge and justice, Titus Andronicus. The resulting play, renamed Titus Androgynous, is more like a high-speed mugging, with the cast tearing the best parts of the story out with their teeth, then storming the stage to spit blood, stab one another and gleefully upend all pre-conceived notions of Shakespeare as "serious business." Also, there's musical narration.

Titus Androgynous is adapted and directed by Chuck Harper, and it is wonderfully crass. Anything that isn't violent or lascivious has been excised, and by the time it's over the stage and the cast are awash in so much fake blood that you suspect Fangoria magazine is an official sponsor. It's a sugar rush of bad behavior performed with a wink and a feral grin.

Paul Cereghino wears multiple hats, composing the music and then performing it live on keyboard (with live percussion and scoring duties handled by Michael Ferguson), as well as narrating the show through genuinely funny songs and stepping in to play a few minor roles. He opens the show with some musical exposition that explains the duality of theater: Actors play multiple roles, he says, to show "how we're all connected, and because it's cheaper." And then we're off and slaying.

Jonah Walker is our Titus, back from the war against the Goths with a heap of prisoners and looking to relax in Rome. There's an unexpected struggle for the role of emperor, which Titus settles with a vote. The new ruler Saturnanus (Isaiah de Lorenzo) announces he'll take Titus' daughter Lavinia (Rachel Tibbets) as wife. Her betrothed disapproves, and then Titus slays his own son when the boy tries to stick up for his sister. The moment Titus commits that first murder, Saturnanus appears horrified — our first clue that war has driven Titus insane. Murder follows murder follows murder, until almost everybody is dead. Walker gives Titus an unsettling serenity in this whirlwind of blood; he's sangfroid about the sanguine nature of events around him. Killing a man, severing his own hand — this is how the world works for him.

Those murders are aided by Katy Keating, who plays both Roman and Goth, but drops everything to run and get her rolling cart of special effects. These include buckets of fake blood, instant stumps for Lavinia's arms when her hands are chopped off, dummy heads and a wide assortment of sharp household objects. All of the cast is in white pancake makeup with heavy black circles around their eyes that accentuate most expressions, but Keating in particular displays a remarkably joyous bloodlust while she's loading her fellow cast members' mouths with blood capsules or handing over a sword.

Ellie Schwetye and Amanda Wales play both heroic sons of Titus and glowering sons of Tamora, the captured Queen of the Goths who becomes empress. As Gothic boys they kill the emperor's brother Bassianus (Mitch Eagles), then bro-down with an intricately choreographed handshake. After raping and mutilating Lavinia, they repeat that handshake with her dismembered hands, because bros before hoes, right dudes? Throughout the play characters revel in their atrocities, underlining the horrors of a culture at war. Also, it's funny.

If there is a flaw in the show, it's minor. Ferguson's enthusiastic drumming occasionally drowns out someone's lines, and a few laughs are lost. This is a shame because everyone in the cast is great, but Ferguson redeems himself: His musical partner Cereghino interrupts his own death scene to ask the drummer why he's laughing at the performance. Ferguson replies with a standing "fuck you" and a cymbal crash.

So Titus Androgynous is relentlessly funny, violent and crass. But is it art? Yes. Recent Shakespeare productions have been uniformly traditional with period clothes and much reverence. YoungLiars are here to remind us that Shakespeare is for everyone, including and especially the crowd that relishes cheap jokes, cheaper special effects and a lake of blood, liberally splashed about.

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