Titus Andronicus, The Black Monk, and How I Learned to Drive

By Tim Dunleavy

Titus Andronicus, The Black Monk and How I Learned to Drive

About ten minutes before the end of Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s wonderful production of Titus Andronicus, I thought, “When is the intermission going to be?” I hadn’t even realized that I had been sitting spellbound for just under two hours, watching one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays transformed into one of his most delightful. Under Aaron Cromie’s direction, every scene of this Titus Andronicus is inventive and irreverent, and performed with relish. It’s quite an achievement.

That’s especially noteworthy because Titus Andronicus is the play Shakespeare buffs find most difficult to defend. It’s a revenge fantasy about a Roman general involved in a succession battle with the Emperor, one that involves their children, the conquered Queen of the Goths, and her Moorish lover. Before it’s all over, heads and hands get chopped off, eyes get gouged out, tongues get cut out, a woman gets raped, and a mother dines on the dead bodies of her sons. Most people wouldn’t want to see such disgusting excess, so how does Cromie make it all palatable?

With puppets. Cromie has designed his production in the style of Grand Guignol, the 19th century French theatrical style that used puppets to perform violent acts in order to defuse the repulsion an audience would normally feel. Live actors appear here too, some in clownish whiteface, while puppeteers manipulate some forty puppets and shadow puppets to help tell the story. The puppets pop up inside the gothic, peaked arches of Lisi Soessel’s handsome set.

When Titus (a bellowing, gleefully vicious Rob Kahn) kills the emperor’s son, it helps that the son is played by a puppet; Titus just knocks the puppet’s head off and watches blood gush from its neck. It’s cartoonish violence that gets a huge laugh because it’s so absurd. But the puppetry isn’t just for giggles; it’s also used to convey horror. When Titus’ daughter Lavinia (a graceful Lesley Berkowitz) is brutalized, shadow puppets spare us having to see the terrible act—but Lavinia spends the rest of the play carrying a blood-soaked puppet in her own image (right down to the braids in her hair) which shows Titus just what he doesn’t want to see.

Nearly every scene tells the story using a different dramatic technique—and not all of the techniques involve puppetry. When Titus the general addresses his troops, chess pieces take the troops’ place. And there’s plenty of room for real live humans to strut their evil stuff, including the bloodthirsty Emperor Saturnine (Jered McLenigan, bedecked in costume designer Natalia de la Torre’s paisley duds), the Queen of the Goths (an aggressively carnal Caroline Crocker), and the Queen’s lover Aaron (an intense Davon Williams, whose scowl makes you believe it when he says “I have done a thousand dreadful things”). These actors are also currently playing very different roles in the theatre’s other repertory production, Twelfth Night, which makes their performances here even more noteworthy.

Despite the constant variety of approaches, it never feels as if Cromie is trying to top himself. Instead, it feels as if he is telling an outrageous story in a fittingly outrageous style. When Cromie goes for drama, it seems harrowing; when he goes for comedy (which is most of the time), it’s in a morbid style that gets funnier as it gets bloodier. It’s comedic, but not campy—every joke serves a dramatic purpose.

In the final scene, after the last killing takes place and an unlikely character gets elevated to the throne, the opening night audience broke into spontaneous cheers. It was a clear sign that this audacious take on Shakespeare’s bloodiest tale had won over the crowd.

Titus Andronicus runs through May 19, 2012, and is presented (in repertory with Twelfth Night) at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $25 – $35, and may be purchased online at www.phillyshakespeare.org or by calling 215-496-8001.

David Rabe’s newest work, The Black Monk, now receiving its world premiere in a production by Simpatico Theatre Project, is a departure for the Tony-winning playwright: instead of being an original work, it’s an adaptation of an 1894 novella by Anton Chekhov. It’s a dense play, and one that is not always accessible; a man in my row departed at intermission, possibly befuddled by the mixture of lightness, gloom and spooky fantasy. But for those who can stick it out, it ends up being a rewarding, if somber, experience.

As the play opens, the protagonist Kovrin is taking a break from his university studies in Moscow to visit the rural apple orchard where he was raised. There he encounters Pesotsky, the orchard’s owner who reared Kovrin after his parents’ death, and Pesotsky’s lovely daughter Tanya. At first, Kovrin seems to be a buffoon, so happy in the face of misery that he seems illogical, and so driven by his passion for books and learning that he can’t relate to his hosts or their other guests. Kovrin has distinct memories of a story about a monk, clothed in a black robe and possessing mystical powers, that he is certain he read about in a book somewhere. Eventually the monk appears before him, and we learn that the monk is just a figment of Kovrin’s imagination, a manifestation of the psychosis that has tormented him from time to time. Meanwhile, Pesotsky and Tanya both see Kovrin as their savior, the man who could rescue them and their orchard—but the conventional life they have planned for him conflicts with the monk’s message that he is “a man touched by God and greatness.” In time, they crush his spirit, leaving him suffocated by their good intentions. “And now,” he tells them, “I’m dull. I’m as dull and mediocre as both of you.” Kovrin ends up getting one final visit from the black monk, who gives him an important lesson, although it’s one that he learns too late.

Rabe doesn’t try to modernize or simplify Chekhov’s themes or language; at times the language seems as formal as if it were dramatized in Russia circa 1894. Yet the perceptive and reflective tone seems modern, too, showing how far ahead of his time Chekhov was. And the lessons imparted here, concerning happiness, individuality and a desire to please others, benefit from Rabe’s dramatization (with scenes where the protagonist narrates directly to the audience) and director Allen Radway’s stately staging.

The three leading roles are all challenging, since the characters change their demeanors and attitudes from scene to scene. Kovrin (Matt Lorenz) goes from upbeat and caring to outraged to weary; Pesotsky (David Howey) is demonstrative and exuberant at first, but is brutal and dismissive to the peasants who work his land; and Tanya (Sarah Van Auken) has mood swings that make her collapse in tears even as she is preparing her wedding (“These are just little storms that come and go!”). All three are excellent, as is William Rahill in a comic role as a stoic, ineffectual butler. John Greenbaum and Elizabeth Zook perform the music they composed (on piano and violin, respectively), which is appropriately unsettling, and Charlotte Cloe Fox Wind provides the handsome vintage-style costumes.

It’s not easy to love a play with a protagonist who says “I find my happiness disturbing.” Rabe’s meditative adaptation of The Black Monk is sometimes too Chekhovian for its own good. But this play about how a contented man ends up costing himself years of happiness by failing to trust his best instincts is worth the effort you put into it.

The Black Monk runs through April 29, 2012, and is presented by Simpatico Theatre Project at the Off-Broad Street Theater at First Baptist Church, 1636 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $20, with discounts available or students, seniors and military, and are available online at www.SimpaticoTheatre.org or by phone at (215) 423-0254.

How I Learned to Drive, playwright Paula Vogel’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner, is the sort of play that the words “disturbing” and “uncomfortable” seem to have been created for. The story of an adult woman recalling her history of being abused by a lecherous uncle during her teenage years, it’s a play that achieves much of its power from the way it examines a difficult subject from all sides. Its villain and victim are not portrayed in black and white terms; even the teenaged victim ponders her own culpability. Director Kathryn MacMillan’s production for Theatre Horizon is taut and absorbing.

Li’l Bit, as she is known, is an outcast at school from an early age, taunted by family members and schoolmates who see her only in terms of her prematurely busty figure. Uncle Peck is the man who sees her as someone who needs protection, but his definition of protection is different from everyone else’s. For her part, Li’l Bit welcomes the attention, proud of the hold she can have on a man. But as she matures, the driving lessons that Uncle Peck gives her take on a more sinister tone, and the attention becomes more and more troubling to her. In the end, all of Uncle Peck’s words about responsibility while driving—a theme that recurs throughout the play—take on deeper meanings.

Christie Parker plays Li’l Bit with a welcome naturalness, contrasting the keen insight of her adult years with the playful naïvité and flirtatiousness of her teen years. Joe Guzman’s Uncle Peck is creepy without ever turning into an ogre; his compassion is part of what draws Li’l Bit, and so many others, to him. A three-person “Greek Chorus” plays multiple roles, with Susan McKey making the most of some extended comic and dramatic monologues.

How I Learned to Drive is shockingly funny at times, but the most shocking thing about it may be the perception Vogel displays into the complexities of human behavior.

How I Learned to Drive runs through April 29, 2012, and is presented by Theatre Horizon at the Centre Theater, 208 DeKalb Street, Norristown, Pa. Ticket prices are $29, with discounts available for seniors and students, and may be purchased by calling the box office at (610) 283-2230, or online at www.theatrehorizon.org.