Postmodern Shakespeare, Four Plays, Four Ways

"Titus Redux" is co-produced by the New American Theatre and Not Man Apart - Physical Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Ed Krieger

We just can’t get over the Bard.

Even at RADAR L.A. and the Hollywood Fringe, dueling festivals devoted to the theatrical cutting edge, the ultimate warhorses are still running strong – though they are, of course, all dressed up in postmodern garb.

Leading the buzz meter is Titus Redux, which premiered to accolades last year at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and opens Thursday as part of RADAR L.A. It splices dialogue from Titus Andronicus – an early, gory revenge tale of dubious provenance – into an athletic, musical display that comments on the emotional cost paid by soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We deconstruct the words and use them as we will,” says director and choreographer John Farmanesh-Bocca, founder of Not Man Apart – Physical Theatre Ensemble, who is willing, but not eager, to categorize the piece as “devised theater,” the descriptor du jour for collaborative experimental work.

“I’m almost more comfortable calling it an opera or ballet,” he says. “Using Shakespeare’s words is of supreme importance – but no more than the music or the movement or the costumes.”

Farmanesh-Bocca admits he felt some early trepidation mining the same vein as Julie Taymor’s astonishing film interpretation, Titus, but he decided the play’s relative obscurity meant there was more to explore.

“I thought it had the right political overtones to do something special with it,” he says. “This is an opportunity to not have the audience sit with their hands folded and say, ‘Show me Hamlet,’ because they think they know what it’s all about.”

Indeed, any Shakespearean production, from the retro to the most radical revision, must contend with the familiarity factor: A young Orson Welles attacked it in a legendary 1937 production of Julius Caesar that slashed the dusty old script to a brutal 75 minutes. Over at the Hollywood Fringe, the Gangbusters Theatre Company is resurrecting that edit in Julius Caesar: The Death of a Dictator.

Director Leon Shanglebee had been on the lookout for Welles’ supposedly lost abridgment for a decade when he finally ran across it in an out-of-print volume at a used-book store.

“It read so fast, unlike any Shakespeare I’d ever come across. It flew off the page,” says Shanglebee, whose production sets the story in a “militaristic future” with a soundtrack by Metallica.

“If you really love Shakespeare and you are a scholar, it may be something you’re not happy about,” he says. “Welles was just 21 when he did this. He threw out everything he couldn’t use and was left with just the juice.”

There’s even less original dialogue in Four Clowns: Romeo and Juliet. Here, the performers read the script, then tossed it out.

And yes, they’re that kind of clown, with whiteface designs representing the archetypal mischievous, nervous, happy and sad characters.

“Romeo is the sad clown. He just is,” says director and troupe founder Jeremy Aluma. Other obvious choices included mischievous for Mercutio and nervous for Tybalt.

Four Clowns made their debut as the inaugural act for the Hollywood Fringe last year and toured their original show around the country. The company’s version of R&J is meant to blaze new paths not just for the Bard but for clowning as well.

“My understanding of clowns is that they’re completely innocent,” says performer Raymond Lee, “whereas in this show we had to be able to articulate ourselves verbally, to explore violence and sensuality.”

Sex and spatter are also key to the appeal of Pulp Shakespeare, which transforms Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction into an Elizabethan tragedy. It started out, in, of all places, on Wikispaces.com, where a page dubbed “Pulp Bard” crowdsourced the rewrite.

Director Jordan Mansell made some changes of his own for his Fringe version, produced under the moniker Her Majesty’s Secret Players.

“The through-line for both Tarantino and Shakespeare is interesting characters who like to talk a lot,” says Mansell, whose current reading list includes Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer.

“The underlining themes in Shakespeare are love and death and betrayal,” he says. “He really knew the human psyche, and that’s immortal.”

Titus Redux. RADAR L.A. June 16-19 at Los Angeles Theatre Center. http://www.redcat.org/event/radar-la-festival

Julius Caesar: The Death of a Dictator. Hollywood Fringe. June 16, 19-21, 26 at Stella Adler-Los Angeles. http://www.hollywoodfringe.org

Four Clowns: Romeo and Juliet. Fringe. June 16, 18, 24, 25 at Fringe Central

Pulp Shakespeare. Fringe. June 17-19, 24-26 at Actors Circle Theatre.

Kerry Lengel

Kerry Lengel was 16 when he wrote his first theater review, of his high school's production of "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown." It was the first time his credentials as a critic were questioned, but it wasn't the last. He writes for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix.

More Posts