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A CurtainUp Review
Puppet Titus Andronicus

'tis the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his works. It seems rather a heap of rubbish than a structure. .— Comment of English dramatist Edward Ravenscroft, 1678
T. S. Eliot called Titus Andronicus "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written. Not so the Puppet Shakespeare Players who, in association with STT Productions, give it a comedic twist. And though one won't get all the work's serious underpinnings, it scores with its levity.

The opening act is streamlined, replacing its rituals and ceremonial decor with A.J. Cote and John Hull's original song "Actus Primus Opus." While it flattens out the play's sophisticated dramaturgy, this reduced version offers something else: an economic retelling of Act One that winks at the play's use of the Latin language and classical motifs and points forward to its most pivotal events.

This staging is populated by lovable puppets that are hand-held or maneuvered about the stage by the cast. They somehow time-traveled to ancient Rome and decided to linger there a spell. This outing is that it utterly collapses time, hopscotching centuries at will, freely making topical references to our computer age in one scene and classical Rome in the next. So get ready for some real time-warping as this Titus plants one theatrical foot in the past, and one in the present.

The play is famous for its gore, culled from book six of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which is played out to comic effect here. If this sounds in incredibly poor taste, well, yes and no. After all, there's the rape and maiming of Lavinia, the adulterous affair of Tamora and Aaron, the lobbing off of a tongue and limbs (Lavinia and Titus both suffer grisly mutilations) and cannibalism (Tamora literally eats her chopped-up sons in a pie).

This presentation tones down these violent and criminal events via silly-string gore and distances them from real life through its puppetry. Instead of adhering strictly to Shakespeare's language, the troupe relies more on improvisational scenes and audience participation. Forget the ivy tower and stuffy academia. Poetic license is the bottom line here. Aaron the Moor gets anthropomorphized into Aaron the Boar and the rest of the dramatis personae, though retaining their Shakespearean names, are lightweight versions of their character.

The cast artfully maneuvers the puppets which range in size from the Lilliputian to the larger-than life. There are quite a few scenes that feature cast members performing their characters sans puppets which can be confusing at times, but if you can suspend your disbelief, it pays off.
One discovers that some of the puppeteers are first-rate actors and actresses too. Sarah Villegas, in fact, makes a sizable impression as Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Not only does Villegas aptly portray this treacherous diva, she allows us to see glimmers of the character's complex psychology. It's not for nothing that some scholars have pointed out that the Empress Tamora anticipates Cleopatra. As directed by Ryan Rinkel, the incorporation of traditional acting into this puppet presentation, invites one to contemplate the real drama imbedded in this cartoon.

Holly Trotta's minimalist set design is apropos for this mash-up of Shakespeare's tale. She depicts, in broad outline, the city of Rome in the aftermath of battle on a large black-and white canvas. When shifting to the forest lands outside Rome, she doesn't fuss and do a set change but allows the actions of the puppets and the language itself to create the right dramatic mood and atmosphere. Smith's effective lighting washes the stage with just enough light to bring out the colorful puppet figures and the black-and-white set.

If you are among those who appreciate this revenge tragedy, this is your chance to see it served up in puppet fashion. So forgive my pun, but one must hand it to the Puppet Shakespeare Players. They have taken Shakespeare's so-called "worst" play and turned it into something watchable.

Puppet Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
Directed by Ryan Rinkel
Cast: Ryan Rinkel (The Fly), Adam Weppler (Titus), Sarah Villegas (Tamora), Christopher Gebauer (Marcus), Alex Offenkrantz (Saturninus), Tom Foran (Demitrius), Drew Torkelson (Bassanius, Lucius), Shane Snider (Chiron, Messenger, Emelius), A.J. Cote (Aaron the Boar), Mindy Leanse (Lavinia), Ross Hamman (Nurse, Male Understudy) and Abby Judd (ASM, Female Understudy).
Sets: Holly Trotta and Kevin O'Callaghan
Lighting: Leslie Smith
Sound design: John Hull
Puppet design: A.J. Cote
Puppet Fabricators: Mindy Leanse and Sarah Villegas
Costumes: Suzette Snider
Stage Manager: Laurel Detkin
The Beckett Theatre (at Theatre Row) at 410 West 42nd Street (at 9th Avenue). Tickets: $49. Phone 212/239-6200 or visit
From 7/24/14; opening 7/30/14; closing 8/17/14.
Tuesday @ 7pm; Wednesday through Friday @ 8pm; Saturday @ 2 and 8pm.
Running time: approximately 1 hour; 50 minutes with one intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 7/29/14
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