Like a graphic novel come to life, Orlando Shakespeare Theater's "Titus Andronicus" is bold, stylish and in your face. In terms of verve and theatricality, it succeeds in a most entertaining manner.
But the play's stylized trappings — raucous rock music, the actors' rock-star garb — spark conflict in a viewer's mind: Are we supposed to be laughing at the horrific bloodshed? Are we supposed to be enjoying the spectacle of brutal revenge?
Director Jim Helsinger's production is so focused on its visual thrills that it seemingly forgets there could be something more to Shakespeare's tale — admittedly one of the playwright's weaker efforts.
"Titus Andronicus" tells of a Roman general, the title character, who returns from war with enemy Queen Tamora as his prisoner. By a quirk of fate, she becomes the new Roman empress. From then on, the enmity between Titus and Tamora fuels vengeful death after vengeful death.
The time period is deliberately nebulous at the Shakes — swords and firearms are used with equal brutality, the guns adding another jarring note to modern sensibilities. Lisa Zinni's striking costumes, all in shades of black, white and red, bring to mind everything from HBO's "Game of Thrones" to the old "Mad Max" movies.
As Queen Tamora, Jean Tafler sports movie-star sunglasses and an attention-getting personality part Norma Desmond, part Ursula the cackling sea witch from "The Little Mermaid."
Matthew Natale Rush and Greg Joubert amusingly play her sons as teenage delinquents with maybe a single brain cell between them, the sort of vacant-looking idiots who jam to heavy-metal while swigging booze from mommy's liquor cabinet.
The trio are having a jolly good time, along with the imposing Esau Pritchett, who could gleefully twirl a villainous cartoon mustache if he had one.
The good guys pale in the face of the villains' high jinks, though Geoffrey Kent is resolute and noble as Titus' oldest son, Lucius. Kelly Kilgore quickly shows the liveliness of poor, doomed Lucretia, which adds dramatic heft to her fate.
In the title role, Jonathan Epstein spends a little too long confused and dazed by the horrors around him. It's hard to latch on to a character so seemingly passive. But he effectively evolves a steely determination that culminates in a banquet involving buckets of blood artistically spattered on rolls of butcher paper.
Creative stagecraft such as that is what ultimately sells the show, like watching a shoot-'em-up video game come to life. Landon St. Gordon's video projections contribute to the video-game atmosphere, complementing Bob Phillips' set design.
But the stylish motif also torpedoes empathy for the characters. Who cares about video-game avatars? Perhaps the answer is, after leaving the theater, to spare a thought or two for something beyond cartoon villains and buckets of blood — ponder what "Titus Andronicus" says about the nature of humankind.
• What: Orlando Shakespeare Theater production of the William Shakespeare tragedy
• Length: 2:30, including intermission
• Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando
• When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through April 28
• Tickets: $20-$40; $17 Wednesday matinees; students get $10 discount on advance purchase or $12 rush tickets 30 minutes before show, if available; $10 discount for military; $20 for those younger than 30 on April 5
• What else: Playshop, in which patrons can leave their children with Orlando Shakespeare Theater educators, who lead them in arts-related activities during the performance, is offered April 12. Cost is $15 per child
• Call: 407-447-1700
• Online: OrlandoShakes.orgCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times