Titus Andronicus (David Mackett) speaks to the Clown (Laura Darby). PHOTOS BY SCOTT GORMAN, COURTESY OF HART HOUSE THEATRE

Hart House made a bold choice for its annual Shakespeare production this year with Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most gratuitously violent plays. It’s neither as beloved as Hamlet or Macbeth, nor as technically sophisticated, but it deals with similar themes of revenge and power. Hart House’s production is able to balance the play’s comedic and dramatic elements without overemphasizing either.

Titus Andronicus also straddles the boundary between comedy and tragedy. Director James Wallis’ vision for the play was to create the sense of a carnival, of funhouse mirrors and the dual world of the grotesque and comedic, a promising vision that played well with the themes and tones of the play. While Wallis’ production occasionally edges close to giving in to the tragedy, on the whole it balances the two modes well, leading to a funny, horrifying, and thought-provoking performance.

The production also shines in its enthusiastic acceptance of the play’s natural horrific, comedic, and tragic dimensions. The grotesque fully plays out on stage, while the comedic horror of some moments, like when Titus’ daughter Lavinia holds a dismembered hand in her mouth, manages to elicit both laughs and squirms from the audience.

At the same time, the trauma of sexual assault, the fear and grief of losing a child, and the heartbreak of a lover’s death are all portrayed with full respect for their tragedy.

The casting of female performers in some of the originally male roles also adds a layer of depth and insight. The show’s first on-stage death becomes the death of a female child, making the later rape of a female character in revenge more powerful for its parallels. Lavinia’s lover is portrayed by a woman, also providing for deeper engagement with the theme of sexuality.

The production also features some electrifying performances. Shalyn McFaul and Tristan Claxton, who play Tamora and Saturninus, perform with particularly great gusto and liveliness and play off each other well, constantly contributing to the comedy of the performance. David Mackett, who plays Titus, comes alive in the second half of the performance, enthusiastically embracing Titus’ descent into silliness.

Titus Andronicus relishes and revels in the violence it portrays, but it also has touching and startling moments. It’s a horror story on the surface with a surprisingly meaningful deconstruction of revenge underneath.

Any production of the show must grapple with these competing strands. Done well, the play can be fascinating; if it succumbs wholly to either the comedic or the tragic, it can be profoundly disappointing.

Hart House’s production manages to handle these dual elements well — both over-the-top and darkly humorous — while also showing the devastating effects of sexual assault, murder, and the tragic consequences of revenge. The result is a fun, exciting, and thoroughly enjoyable production — one well worth attending.

Titus Andronicus runs at Hart House Theatre until March 10.

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