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STAGE REVIEW

This 'Titus' chooses power over parody

CAMBRIDGE -- William Shakespeare wrote "Titus Andronicus," the critic Harold Bloom has argued, as an over-the-top parody of Christopher Marlowe. We're not meant to take its rivers of red blood and oceans of purple metaphor seriously, Bloom asserts; it's all a big, gory joke -- so silly, he concludes, that he wouldn't see it again unless Mel Brooks were directing.

Indeed, when you read stage directions like "Enter a messenger, with two heads and a hand," it's hard not to see Shakespeare's early revenge tragedy as a kind of ur-Tarantino farce. But as David R. Gammons demonstrates in his brutal but nuanced staging for Actors' Shakespeare Project, what looks ridiculous in print can take on a fearsome power in the flesh. That only makes sense: Shakespeare wrote for actors and audiences, not publishers and professors.

Gammons directs for actors and audiences, too, with an assured control of movement, imagery, and theatrical space that sends us hurtling into the starkly nightmarish Rome of "Titus" with terrifying clarity and speed. In a site-specific production (as usual for the Actors' Shakespeare Project, but unusually effective here), Gammons puts us in the cavernous basement of the Garage in Harvard Square, and his set design evokes both the building's history as a parking garage and our own visceral unease at being shut up underground.

Vaguely Paleolithic paintings of wild beasts smear the gray walls; filthy rocks encircle a central column, and ropes dangle ominously from a rough-hewn lintel at one side. Cam Willard's sound design melds metallic screeching, tribal drums, hisses and roars and screams into a postapocalyptic, prehistoric cacophony that feels exactly right.

Violent acts litter the plot's simple trajectory of revenge. The battle-scarred general Titus, newly returned from fighting the Goths, starts things off by killing the eldest son of the captive Goth queen to placate the spirits of his own dead warrior sons. Queen Tamora retaliates, along with her evil lover, by driving her two surviving sons to rape and mutilate Titus's daughter Lavinia, and things only get bloodier and nastier from there.

Lighted by Jeff Adelberg's expressive mix of deep shadows and glaring bare bulbs, the staging feels ancient and industrial all at once. We're in war-weary Rome; we're in bloody Elizabethan England; we're in our own scary subways; we're back in the cave, pounding rocks into each other's skulls.

By the end of this taut, carefully cut version, those rocks have almost become characters in their own right. Physically and metaphorically weighty, they stand in for weapons, food, a baby, and, most inventively, body parts: Besides transforming those "two heads" into a couple of boulders in burlap bags, Gammons deals with the lopping off of two characters' hands by having the actors grip stones in their fists, brilliantly evoking the severed stumps without drowning the stage in gore.

Through it all, Gammons evokes gruesome violence without stage blood or rubber heads. His images sometimes take on overtly political tones, as when the sacrificed prisoner wears a black hood straight out of Abu Ghraib, while they build into a subtle and coherent visual world all their own. And, by refusing to distract us with a sensational bloodbath, Gammons focuses our attention on the play's deeper themes of cruelty, tortured loyalty, and revenge.

It's less immediately clear why the company chose to stage "Titus" with an all-male cast. The men playing women deliberately steer clear of camp; instead of wigs, they have shaved heads, thereby avoiding drag-queendom but also conjuring images of cancer patients and Nazi collaborators, to uncertain effect. John Kuntz, as Tamora, stays unmistakably masculine and tough throughout, a choice that makes this already somewhat caricatured villainess seem even more hopelessly 2-D. Paul Melendy's Lavinia, meanwhile, projects more fury than shame or fear, making it harder to believe that she'd remain a helpless victim to the end.

The men-as-men fare better, particularly Robert Walsh, a multilayered and passionate Titus. This old warrior is sick of war, but he can't stop fighting; Walsh reveals both his anger and his sorrows, and he can be slyly funny to boot. The twinkle in his eye when Titus enacts his climactic revenge -- let's just say it would do Sweeney Todd proud -- almost saves the moment from teetering over the brink from tragedy to sick joke.

Almost. But the audience still can't help giggling when Shakespeare goes over the top. It may be a nervous laugh, but it's still enough to make you wonder if Mel Brooks would make sense after all.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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