The weekend before Halloween was the perfect time for the Actors' Gang to open "Titus Andronicus," a horror show featuring enough Grand Guignol gore to satisfy the most sanguinary-minded. Presented as part of the UK/LA festival celebrating the British fine arts, Shakespeare's gruesome drama puts controversially violent recent films like "Natural Born Killers" in historical perspective.
Even though it is arguably the most flawed of all Shakespeare's dramas, a mediocre Seneca rip-off with a strained plot and one-dimensional characters, "Andronicus" was a favorite in its day simply because it was a rip-roaring, crowd-pleasing, slash-and-splatter spectacle with no pretensions to greatness. Hacked limbs, hewn tongues, cut throats--they're all gristle for the mill in Shakespeare's lurid potboiler.
Co-directors Brent Hinkley and Dean Robinson bear this in mind, with occasionally sensational results. Unfortunately, although dealing admirably with the play's complicated stage effects, Hinkley and Robinson take their Shakespeare a little too seriously. Surely, "Titus Andronicus" is the perfect vehicle for the savage inventiveness so typical of the Actors' Gang.
From the opening, when the actors stomp in, one by one, barking modern-day racial slurs at a downtrodden captive, we realize that this is meant to be Shakespeare with a message. That message dies aborning, in large part because of the company's uncharacteristically straight approach to its material.
Not that there aren't moments of inspired silliness. Late in the play, Andronicus (Lee Arenberg) prepares for the treacherous barbarian queen Tamora (Karen Foster) a pasty containing her own sons. He bursts onto the scene like a demented Benihana chef, sporting a tall chef's cap and wielding a cleaver that we know will be used for more than serving pie.
This kind of playful irreverence is sadly in short supply. Most often, the audience chuckles uncomfortably, uncertain of the appropriate response.
So funny and fine in past Gang productions, Arenberg has occasional lunatic extremes that hint at just how effective his performance could have been given the proper direction. Foster is marvelously malevolent as the scheming queen of the Goths, who plots Andronicus' downfall with the aid of her devilish lover Aaron (Joseph Haj), a hellspawn who would make Freddie Krueger seem as convivial as Fred Rogers.
Richard Hoover's set, a hybrid of Rome after the fall and Santa Monica Freeway after the earthquake, has a radically raked playing area center stage that threatens to catapult the actors into the front row. The set certainly proves the performers' agility but is otherwise user-unfriendly.
Granted, there are thrills, chills, and kills aplenty in this production, but what could have been as spooky and fun as a Halloween haunted house is only marginally campy. One expects more from the Actors' Gang.
* "Titus Andronicus," Actors' Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Wednesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Dec . 3. $15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.