Titus X: The Musical
nytheatre.com review by Ross Peabody
July 27, 2006
The only difference between Shakespeare and punk rock is about 380 years. There: I've said it, and we've gotten it out of the way. I'm not the first to say it, but when you're writing about Titus X, Shawn Northrip's raucous punk rock musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, it has to be said. Famously hated by academics (most notably by canonical literary scholar Harold Bloom), dismissed by its detractors for its violence, blood, and sex, and frequently called childish, juvenile, populist trash, Titus Andronicus is often considered to be one of the Bard's works that was most popular with the groundlings. Now, I could repeat the exact same phrase with only minor adjustments in introducing an essay on punk rock. The first of the many strengths of Northrip's play is that he has so keenly observed this similarity and managed to fuse the 400-year-old angst-ridden play with the 35-year-old angst-ridden music form to create what is, pretty much, just a hell of an evening of theatre. The second is that he's managed to hew so true to form to both of his source references.
Before I get ahead of myself: Titus X is the story of a victorious soldier returning home to Rome after losing most of his sons to war. He observes the religious rites of human sacrifice, killing the son of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and setting in motion a violent chain reaction of revenge, which includes: the rape and disfigurement of Titus's daughter, the execution of two of his sons, the exile of a third, and the amputation of his hand. Titus, losing his sanity, sets his own gory revenge in motion, killing Tamora's two remaining sons, baking them in a pie, and feeding them to her at a banquet, by the end of which, all of the guests are dead. It's a dark play and a violent play and often a play with the potential for all kinds of brilliant gratuitousness, and Northrip doesn't disappoint. In fact, as the play progresses, the inspired pairing of the music (Northrip is an astoundingly knowledgeable and skilled composer/musician) with this particular play makes you wonder how anyone has been able to do Titus without it before.
The music itself references about 15 years of very diverse and unusual punk rock history, and Northrip knows his stuff. If you're at all a fan of the genre circa '78-'93, especially the darker edges, it's a lot of fun to play name-that-band reference. If you're not familiar with it, however, there's no need to be too concerned, as the music narrates, illuminates, and reflects the plot so well that you'll unquestionably be sucked into the world of the play at the chanting of "TITUS, TITUS" that begins the play.
Northrip has trimmed the play to about an hour and 40 minutes, packing it to the brim with music. Most of the dialogue has been absorbed into the music, and what hasn't is sectioned into short, lean scenes that keep the play moving without letting the momentum of the music lag. The surprising thing is that he's lost very little of the play in translation. It's a bold choice that results in a staggering effectiveness.
Equally effective is Peter Schuyler in the title role as Titus. He's an intense and imposing figure throughout the play while all the while finding the humanity and humor in the role, and in the play, that has to exist for us to take it at all seriously. It really is the weight of the play on his shoulders, and he bears it well. Throughout the play he flashes from a militaristic intensity to maniacal insanity to deadpan hilarity without missing a beat. When his single-handed Titus tries to communicate with his handless and tongueless daughter, it makes you want to sob, but that's very difficult because it's just such a very funny moment on stage.
Although the ever-present humor is fitting and enjoyable in the music and in Schuyler's performance, director Peter Sanfilippo, who does a mighty impressive job just navigating this very big play around a very small stage, packs an awful lot of gags into the play, sometimes allowing it to go a touch too far. I found myself wishing that, surrounded by the thick intensity of the music and the play itself, he would occasionally allow me to fully experience the shock of someone cutting off an appendage in front of me, or being tortured onstage. That sounds a little extreme, and it is, and it should be, but just at the moment that anything shocking is about to happen onstage, there is the inevitable joke, and that joke does dissipate the energy of the act, creating something of a PG feeling to what is, at heart, an R-rated play.
That's not a massive obstacle, by any means, to enjoying this play, though. The cast of six throws themselves into the performance with wild abandon and Sanfilippo's costumes are a perfect blend of the punk rock and the theatrical. It's a perfect 10PM, Thursday night out show. Have a drink, enjoy, and let it wash over you. It's a good time. It's fun. It's angry. It's loud. It's punk rock.