TITUS ANDRONICUS, Shakespeare's Motley Crew, at the Athenaeum Theatre. Shakespeare's first tragedy is his bloodiest, a shockfest of mutilation, amputation, rape, stabbings, shootings, and torture that ends with a mother unwittingly eating her sons. It also contains powerful passages that, however early in the Bard's career, only he could have penned. The body count surpasses Hamlet's, but Titus Andronicus dispenses with psychological penetration and consistency of character. Its driving force is revenge: the title character's sons are sacrificed to a sociopathic Roman emperor and his savage wife.
Produced in 1987 at the old Organic Theater in a chainsaw staging that sought mainly to trigger the gag reflex, the play receives a modern-dress remount from Shakespeare's Motley Crew. Director Jeremy Wechsler preserves the gore, bombast, curses, and laments but adds an urgency that makes sense of the butchery. Heather Graff's monochromatic set and Kristine Knanishu's grim gray and black costumes make the bloodshed sharp and sickening. The committed cast never gets lost in this house of horrors: Don Bender tackles the title role with rampaging conviction and a blissful indifference to the character's mood swings, and Duane Sharp as his brother registers a good man's helplessness amid the carnage. Laura Jones Macknin incarnates treachery as the relentless empress, Robert Taverbaugh reinvents melodrama as Aaron the Moor, and Ric Kraus as the despicable Saturninus broadcasts evil on all frequencies. Scary stuff.