The 37th Festival season began Monday evening with an unusual double bill: Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" before the intermission and "The Comedy of Errors" after.
Though precedents for pairing heavy tragedy with light, even impudently light, entertainment have a long, established tradition, it's not something today's audiences are accustomed to.
Still, why not?
Either "Titus" or "Comedy" can benefit from being on a longer program. Both are on the short side, when they are not dragged out interminably to give the theatergoer the illusion of his money's worth, and there are other superficial similarities that make at least an interesting excuse for putting them together.
Both are plays based on the Roman models; both are early Shakespeare; both are one of a kind.
"Comedy" is the only farce Shakespeare wrote and "Titus" is his only tragedy to adhere closely to Aristotle's unities.
The tendency to talk about them at the same time here at Stratford is reinforced by the fact they share the same casts, the same directors in reverse roles of authority, the same designers, lighting designers, and who knows what. But they are quite different plays, quite different experiences, which seems to be the point anyhow.
"Titus" plunges us into a particularly dark, bloody bit of history that in the annals of villainous tyranny seems stuck at the local level. It doesn't magnify, as tragedy ought to do, but appears to reduce events to an aberration of long buried history.
It may be my myopia. So accustomed are we to chapter and verse of nightmarish horrors that "Titus'" long bloodbath strikes as more of the same, and excessively stupid in the bargain. If care isn't taken, the tragic victims begin to resemble mere saps.
The directors are Richard Monette and Jeannette Lambermont, who last season gave us a mega-hit in "The Taming of the Shrew." Lambermont, who heretofore assisted Monette, directs "Titus," Monette consults.
For "The Comedy of Errors," they switch around, Monette directing, Lambermont consulting.
Lambermont has chosen an Oriental look and sound for "Titus," possibly with the idea that the conventionalized dynamics of traditional Oriental theater would make the actions of "Titus" less tied to a particular historical time, place and situation.
Monette's "Comedy" has an extravagantly rococo notion behind it.
It can be said that Lambermont, with the moire difficult task, doesn't go far enough and that Monette goes too far.
Faintly samurai-looking figures lurk in "Titus" and there are sharp volleys of drums and sounds of gongs. An unfortunate extension of the motif happens when Titus serves up his famous gastronomical insult to Queen Tamora. The meat pies from the remains of her sons ("Titus" is not for the squeamish) resemble egg rolls.
Not enough rigor, though, has been applied. The power -- the almost mathematical beauty and mystery -- that derives from highly stylized, highly abstracted, universalized drama associated with Oriental theater is missing.
Instead we have Shakespearean Romans cruelly bumping each other off in Oriental dress. There's pageant, but only for its own sake.
Nicholas Pennell's Titus is a gray, fatigued hero who wastes no time in making matters unimaginably worse. He sacrifices Tamora's son and moments later kills one of his own for a social gaffe. Pennell measures out his revenge plans in stately cadences that ring but not necessarily with truth. In dramatic roles of this kind Pennell always has his work cut out for him to come across as genuine.
Lucy Peacock is Titus' wretched daughter Lavinia (raped, tongue torn out, hands cut off) and very wretch and very good she is. Her enemy, opposed to her virgin white in flaming orange and red gowns, is Goldie Semple as Tamora.
Aaron, who could be an early study of Iago, is portrayed with loads of emphatic energy by Hurbert Baron Kelly. Keith Dinicol's Saturninus is a screeching, sneering, gloating ruler. James Blendick brings to Titus' brother Marcus as sir of a jolly pol disappointed then despairing in the messy savagery.
Monette's idea in "The Comedy of Errors" is to have a little extra fun, as he did so successfully in "The Taming of the Shrew." It works, but it doesn't. That is, the extra fun is fun, but it's quite clearly at the expense of "Comedy."
"The Comedy of Errors" is not a comedy at all, but a farce. And as farce has its own precise logic, this logic must always be in clear view, or it doesn't stand much of a chance. Monette's rococo decorations -- a singing, tra-la-la-ing quartet, stop action, and a lot else -- cannot help but obscure the view if only a little.
One actor, Geordie Johnson, plays the identical twins Antipholus of Syracuse and of Ephesus with considerable success and one actor, Keith Dinicol, plays the identical twins, Dromio of Syracuse and Ephesus with equal results. Goldie Semple is Adriana, the wife, and Lucy Peacock is Luciana.
Too much of it perhaps strains for laughs, over and above the natural comic qualities of Shakespeare's farce, which is not to be sniffed at. Yet I must say the general relief brought on by the lighthearted stuff after the grim horizons of "Titus" is more than welcome.
All in all I suppose the double bill itself works better than the plays in these versions do separately.