Off With Their Puppet Heads!

Puppet Titus Andronicus
The Puppet Shakespeare Players
The Beckett Theatre, NYC
Directed by Ryan Rinkel

If you like your Elizabethan revenge tragedy filtered through a mixture of Avenue Q and a Robot Chicken episode, then you can probably stop reading right here and go buy tickets to Puppet Titus Andronicus. This raucous reimagining of William Shakespeare's already over-the-top blood-soaked drama renders Muppet-on-Muppet mutilation and familial cannibalism more fun (and funny) than it probably has any right to be. The cast takes the Bard's early commercial hit, a play that begins with a religious sacrifice, runs through several deaths and a rape, and ends with a series of rapid-fire onstage murders that ostensibly tie up all of the loose ends--and which later, for reasons not understood by this reviewer, fell into critical disfavor for a couple of hundred years--and cloaks it in felt and silly string, combining the original text, scripted jokes, and improvisation.

To give a brief idea of the flavor of this production, the exposition-heavy first act is summarized via a hard rock song that explains in the chorus that everyone will die by the play’s end, Marcus Andronicus battles the third act’s fly Mortal Kombat-style, and Lavinia uses a whiteboard to play hangman with the audience during intermission. Puppet Titus also, though, derives a lot of humor from meta-commentary on the original play--riffing on the bureaucrat Marcus's relative unimportance to the action, for example, or, more directly, asking of one particular bawdy pun, "Can you believe Shakespeare wrote this crap?" The entire crew of puppeteers brings hilarious life to their characters.  Shane Snider and Tom Foran as puppets Chiron and Demetrius play off one another especially well, while Adam Weppler and Sarah Villegas bring charisma and energy to the feuding (non-puppet) Titus and Tamora and Mindy Leanse does impressive comedic work with puppet Lavinia's mostly non-speaking and originally tragic role. Everyone onstage is clearly having a great time, and that translates into the audience. Even the program is a kaleidoscope of self-references and in-jokes.

That all of this works so well should perhaps not be surprising for an already gleefully grotesque tragedy that pivots on a moment of inappropriate laughter by its title character and treats dismemberments as opportunities for yet more bad "hand" puns.  To depart from the spirit of this play for a moment and take a more serious line of observation, it is interesting to note that the pattern of imagery and wordplay from the original that has disappeared is that relating to race, centered on Aaron. Aaron the Moor here becomes Aaron the Boar, and only one use of the word "black" remains.  It was a curious choice: it seems that race, unlike rape, mutilation, and cannibalism, is too dangerous for a feel-good comedy.

That is not what you will be thinking about when you see this show, however, because you’ll be much too busy watching a murdered puppet’s eyeball fly into the audience. - Leah Richards and John Ziegler

Puppet Titus Andronicus is playing at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W 42 St., New York, NY.