The first indication hat this is not going to be a nice enjoyable evening of summer theater comes shortly after the start when this doddering old man takes a knife and kills his own son.
That’s the signal for the parade to begin, a march featuring mutilation, incest, a freakishly buxom blow up sex doll, lying, cheating, a Tony Bennett song, decapitation and a little touch of cannibalism thrown in for good measure.
It could only be the triumvirate of William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus and Milwaukee’s own emperor of ambition, Dale Guzman.
Gutzman directs and stars as the title character in Andronicus, the most violent and bloody Shakespeare play and one that is produced only rarely. If it sounds like it’s right up the alley for Guzman’s Off The Wall Theatre, well, it is.
This Andronicus is a production with 24 characters crowded into the tiny space on Wells St., as hard is it may be to believe. But they all move easily in and out as one horror follows another follows another.
The play is the first tragedy written by Shakespeare and it’s set during the final days of the Roman Empire. It tells the story of Titus, a conquering general in the Roman army and Tamora (Laura Monagle), the queen of the just-conquered Goths.
It’s a complex story with revenge on he minds of everybody, but most especially Tamora, whose drive is eventually matched by Titus himself.
When Titus returns from his winning campaign he finds that the emperor has died and that he is being touted to take his place. But he turns the offer down so it is Saturninus (Max Williamson), a son of the late emperor who takes the helm.
Saturninus announces that he is going otmarry Lavinia (Marua Atwood) who is Titus’ daughter but who is coupled with Saturninus’ brother. During a scuffle over this complication Titus kills a son and Saturninus announces he will instead wed Tamora.
Once the couples are straightened out we are off and running with this tale of horror that Shakespeare himself called a “Lamentable Tragedy.”
Titus is the precursor to all of the tragedies to come from Shakespeare, and in the title character we see the inklings of what is to come from that pen.
Gutzman, who knows his way around a Shakespearean stage like nobody else in this city, creates a character who moves from hero warrior to a man gone mad by the end of the show. If this sounds a bit like King Lear, the comparisons are inevitable.
While this production has its uneven moments, it is rescued by some stellar performances that add new understanding and dimensions to a play that is often perplexing.
It starts, of course with Guzman himself, who lets you know what he is thinking even before he lets himself know. He’s a marvelous physical actor whose shaking hands and tight-lipped grimace are the kind of vision that leaves no dispute as to what’s going on.
Monagle continues her work as a marvelous actor with a role that demands both honesty and deceit in the same breath. There is not a moment that passes in this show that she is not scheming to complete her vengeance. She is as sexy and sultry as you could want and there is no sense trying to figure out why all these men, including her two sons, are so enraptured with her. And she, with them, until the pie she is served is revealed to be baked with the hearts of her sons.
Atwood spends most of the play without hands or a tongue, both of which have been cut out of her by Tamora’s sons. But she is able to say as much without a word as many actors do with a full script.
Gutzman is nothing if not a shameless purveyor of theatrical legerdemain and it’s present in abundance here. From his hand being cut off, to the bloody heads of two decapitated to the slit of the throat of Tamora’s sons by Titus, the blood flows.
Gutzman also knows about humor and uses it frequently in this gory story. For example, after a series of mutilations and deaths, he regales the audience with the Tony Bennett song, I Wanna Be Around… which includes the phrase “to pick up the pieces.”
But the key, as always with Shakespeare, is the language. The words that carry us through the complexities of the story. It is left to Titus, worn by life, to explain the horrors that have come and those that await over the next horizon.
Why, I have not another tear to shed:
Besides, this sorrow is an enemy,
And would usurp upon my watery eyes
And make them blind with tributary tears:
Then which way shall I find Revenge’s cave
For these two heads do seem to speak to me
And threat me I shall never come to bliss
Till all these mischiefs be return’d again
Even in their throats that have committed them.
Come, let me see what task I have to do.
You heavy people, circle me about,
That I may turn me to each one of you,
And swear unto my soul to right your wrongs.
The vow is made. Come, brother, take a head;
And in this hand the other I will bear.
Lavinia, thou shalt be employ’d: these arms!
Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.
As for thee, boy, go get thee from my sight;
Thou art an exile, and thou must not stay:
Hie to the Goths, and raise an army there:
And, if you love me, as I think you do,
Let’s kiss and part, for we have much to do.
“Titus Andronicus” runs through June 25 and information is available at http://www.offthewalltheatre.com.