The appellation “Jr.” has been attached to many, many Broadway shows such as Beauty and the Beast, Jr., Bugsy Malone, Jr., Fiddler on the Roof, Jr. and more. These are shows that have been altered and shortened to suit the needs and talents of young performers. It’s a pretty good idea. And now the term has been wryly pasted on to a Shakespeare play.
The Bard’s revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus (circa 1588-1593 C.E), is a bloody horror show, with limbs hacked off, tongues cut out and children served to a mother in a stew. Villains do villainous things and, in the end, bodies litter the stage—just the thing to get the juices of middle school children flowing. Titus Andronicus, Jr., a grim, often hilarious lampoon fresh out of Las Vegas, employs a cast of enthusiastic youngsters and one twisted adult to act out pretty much all of the horrors. Mr. Benjamin (Thomas Chrastka), the teacher in charge, languishes in the depressing throes of a marital bust up. His angst creeps into the action where he has rewritten some of the script to reflect his woes.
The play is naturally graphic, with bloody deeds, offstage rape, and lots of common foul language (I think I heard the term twatwaffle). There is even a gratuitous mention of STDs. How do the kids handle all this? With gleeful enthusiasm. Are their young psyches harmed? Not a bit. Their joy and pride in the production is palpable.
So how is the acting? Mr. Chrastka is a hoot. His naked stare into the distance as he contemplates his emotional destruction is sublime. He accompanies the action of the play with a grinding electric guitar. And he bosses the kids with authority until he loses his thread and goes insane in a perfectly Shakespearean manner.
But the show is really all about the kids who embrace the work wholeheartedly. The middle school age range is 11-13, just where the throes of puberty wreak havoc. As might be expected there are kids who look very young and small and those who are tall and project a budding maturity. In the title role, Ken Haley is suitably heroic. Noa Agatstein as the treacherous Goth queen, Tamora, delivers her lines with well-spoken authority and possesses a youthful charisma beyond her years. Maxwell Claydon scores as the sly, amoral assassin, Aaron. Ashlee Grubbs and Will Haley as Tamora’s sons have a good time with their wickedness.
Cash Freeman must endure the giggles over the pronunciation of his character’s name, Bassianus, and I guess it wouldn’t be middle school without some fart jokes. Joshua Smithline gets laughs as the bent, doddering old Marcus. Gary Easton makes a noble Saturninus, the new Roman emperor, and Joelie Mountain is lovely as Titus Andronicus’ cruelly maimed daughter Lavinia. Kudos to the kids!
If you want to see something totally different, then Titus Andronicus, Jr. is your play. You may wonder at the propriety of it, but forget that. The kids are fine. They are having the time of their lives.
Titus Andronicus, Jr. has two more performances at Sacred Fools Theatre, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood—Friday, June 17 at 5pm, and Saturday, June 18, at 8pm.