Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Shakespeare's Black Comedy

I have been invited to propose up to 3 plays to direct for my Alma Mater's ACT (All College Theatre) company. I chose a modern work (Paul Rudnick's Valhalla), a mid-century thriller (Maxwell Anderson's Bad Seed) and what most scholars agree is probably Shakespeare's first play, Titus Andronicus.

Titus Andronicus details the story of a Roman General (the titular Titus) who is returning from war with the Goths, to find Rome in the midst of political turmoil as two brothers vie for the throne. After losing 15 of his 18 sons in battle, Titus has captured the Goth Queen Tamora; her Moorish adviser Aaron and her three sons, whom he presents to the new Emperor, Saturninus. As punishment for his own sons' deaths at the hands of the Goths, Titus has Tamora's oldest son killed. But Saturninus immediately becomes smitten with Tamora and marries her, pardoning the Queen and her two remaining sons. Tamora and Aaron quickly plot their own revenge against Titus, killing two of his three remaining sons. Meanwhile Tamora has become pregnant by Aaron. Aaron, a truly Machiavellian villain, plots with her to kill two of Titus's sons in what is meant to look like a hunting accident (thy fall into a tiger pit). She then sends her remaining sons to rape Titus' daughter, Lavinia. To make sure Lavinia can't ID the perps. they cut out her tongue and cut off her hands so she cannot say or write who defiled her. But the plucky Lavinia picks up a stick in her stumps and writes Tamora's sons' names in the dirt. Titus then captures Tamora's sons and kills them; cuts them up and bakes them in a pie which he then force-feeds to Tamora and Saturninus. In true Shakespearean tragedy style, everybody dies at the end.

While the events in Titus Andronicus are most like inspired by the works of the Roman poets Ovid and Seneca, the plot is so outrageous and gory, most Shakespearean companies avoid it like the plague. Personally, I think it's perfect fodder for a black comedy and have proposed it as such for TCNJ's ACT.

Happily, I'm not the only director to think so. Julie Taymor's delirious 1999 adaptation, starring Anthony Hopkins; Jessica Lange; Alan Cumming; Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Angus MacFadyen is a hilarious mix of periods, styles and over-the-top gore, resulting in one of the best Shakespearean films ever made. I cannot wait for her upcoming adaptation of The Tempest, starring Dame Helen Mirran as Prospera (Hmmmm... might I have a special interest in this film?). Anyway, here's the trailer for her version of Titus:

Of course, Bad Seed has also been adapted twice. Once as theatrical film starring most of the Broadway cast and again as an updated TV movie. Either way, it remains a creepy thriller about a child who may well be a serial killer.

The last play I proposed was Paul Rudnick's Valhalla, which details the similarities between a young gay man in 1940's Texas and mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. It's both touching and comedic in a way which I cannot imagine would translate to film.

Honestly, I don't care which of the three the ACT board picks, as long as they pick one. The current crop of young actors at TCNJ have proven (through several recent productions I have seen there) that they are not only talented, but fearless, and I would be both honored and privileged to direct them.

More, anon.

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