Very little about Shakespeare's blood-soaked earliest tragedy lends itself to reimagining the play as an old-time variety show, and lacking the ingenuity to make the concept work Stella Adler Theatre Lab's "Titus Andronicus: A Vaudeville" is an overreach so ill-advised it seems to have been guided by some planet in retrograde.
How else to explain a conceit that grafts clown makeup, kazoos, inept juggling and other carnivalesque imagery onto Shakespeare's relentlessly brutal text? Though some of the stylized design elements have conceptual links to character traits — manipulated politicians as puppets, villains in burglar outfits — others are jarringly arbitrary, such as the multiple roles performed as gender-bent ballet-skirted burlesque.
Even if this tutu "Titus" is aiming for ironic incongruity, it doesn't show much understanding of or facility with the late-19th/early-20th century popular entertainment it's supposed to be invoking. Traditional vaudeville sketches were generally short and fun; this presentation is neither. Its extended mutilation, murder and cannibalism depictions aren't made appreciably cheerier by swapping red confetti for stage blood, and dressing a sadistic rape in circus trappings isn't edgy or thought-provoking — it's merely tasteless.
Successful vaudeville shows were also talent showcases, and though there might have been a similar intent here for a predominantly acting student cast, the implementation is no credit to anyone involved. The energy would have been better spent practicing scansion than dressing for Halloween.
"Titus Andronicus: A Vaudeville," Stella Adler Lab Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 17. $15. (323) 960-7770 or www.plays411.com/titus. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.