Bloody Sunday Bloody: A tale of two Shakespeares

OK, yesterday was an interesting day Bard-wise. The British Council’s Shakespeare Lives initiative presented a BBC broadcast and a worldwide internet streamed delivery of the Shakespeare’s Globe production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And last night, I took in the Theatricum Botanicum’s production of Titus Andronicus here in southern California.

Compare and contrast, as the ol’ English teacher in me might say…

Both productions were non-standard fare. Neither was what I deplore as “museum-piece Shakespeare,” productions so reverent that it feels hermetically sealed and thus, kind of dead.

Both updated the setting/costuming: Midsummer to India (this must be the hot idea this year); Titus to a modern military state.

Both did a little gender switching in the acting company: Midsummer had a gay Helenus (rather than a straight Helena); Titus had many of the male roles played by women (as there are only three roles in the play written for women, this is not surprising), including the key characters of Marcus (Marcia) and Lucius (Lucia).

Both played with the text substantially: Midsummer inserted contemporary song snippets (including a hilarious moment when Hermia shares her escape and wedding news to Helenus, and they spontaneously kick into a chorus of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Wonderful. They also adapted some sonnets to be songs inserted into the play (most with additional modernized lyrics). Titus reworked many of the lines in the play to fit its modern setting (president for emperor, “corporate nation,” and the like).

Both began with some serious fourth-wall breakage: Midsummer had its Quince and Bottom giving some funny instructions to the audience (no phones, fire exits), while Titus instructed audience members to respond to cue cards (applause, cheering) to become the play’s internal audience in the opening scene. Both very effective.

Not so effective with the descent of both plays into post-intermission shouting. Angry shouting (of course, Titus sorta has a rationale for shouting).

Now the differences…

Humor: The comedy Midsummer I found moderately funny, but generally humorless. There did not seem, to me at least, a sense of joy in this world. The tragedy Titus, on the other hand, played up the (sometimes absurdist) humor in the play to great effect. I mean, the text has Titus put his severed hand into Lavinia’s mouth to carry (as both her hands have been cut off), but he put the hand first in his own mouth, transferring it like a mother bird to its hatchling. Disturbing, but oddly funny nonetheless.

Tone: I found Midsummer to be angry, at times hateful. The physical treatment of Hermia by a “transformed” Demetrius is violent, gratuitous. Oberon’s interactions with Titania (and Titania’s to Bottom) are tinged with a cruelty and disdainful. Titus, directed by Ellen Geer) went full horrorshow, embracing (as I noted) the humor. It certainly wasn’t light, however; the militaristic setting was disturbing, making the humor all the more unsettling but welcome.

Costuming: Midsummer was a mad mix (or mess) of styles, many of design choices for which seemed to be more provocative, rather than evocative, as if director Rice was saying, “Love me. Hate me. I don’t care, I’m an artist!). Titus was rigid in its adherence to its singularly totalitarian, militaristic setting.

Bottom line:

Contrary to those I read on twitter as I watched the live feed, I did not enjoy Midsummer. I appreciate its wildness (the Helenus worked surprisingly well, especially when he uses mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to revive the sleeping Demetrius), but I found it loud (which can be a good thing), angry (which I’m not sure is a good thing with this play), and unrelentingly button-pushing (I know, I loved in in OSF’s recent Timon; but it seemed to fit there, and [for me, at least] not so much here).

I did, however, enjoy Titus. Didn’t love it (there were too many in the ensemble that couldn’t hold their own with the better performances, like Michael McFall’s force-of-nature Aaron, Marie Francoise Theodore’s sexy but snarling Tamora, and Sheridan Crist’s muscular raging bull of the titular Titus). But I did like it. And for those in southern California, and want to see the rarely produced horrorshow that is Titus, I’d recommend it. There are only three more weekend performances to catch before it closes on October 1.

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