The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre's two plays in repertory provide an illuminating contrast. Artistic Director Carmen Khan's elegantly melancholy Twelfth Night and Aaron Cromie's darkly comic Titus Andronicus succeed as standalone productions, but prove even more worthwhile for being able to see the same group of actors perform both drastically different plays.
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's most flexible comedies, transposable to a variety of periods and cultures. Vickie Esposito's costumes place Viola (Victoria Rose Bonito) — shipwrecked far from home, disguised as young man Cesario — in a laid-back version of the 1930s at the stormy seaside resort of Illyria, brightened by multicolored umbrellas. She serves lovesick Orsino (Jered McLenigan), who pines for perpetually mourning Olivia (Caroline Crocker) — until Olivia falls for Cesario.
Khan doesn't push for laughs in the comic subplot, involving a cruel trick played on Olivia's pompous servant Malvolio (Rob Kahn) by her tipsy uncle Sir Toby Belch (Eric Van Wie), sly servant Maria (J.J. Van Name) and dotty suitor Sir Andrew (Johnny Smith). Opening with a tempest worthy of King Lear (sound by Fabian Obispo, lighting by Maria Shaplin), this Twelfth Night remains focused on Bonito's sensitive and scared Viola, even downplaying how supposedly identical she is to her lost twin brother, Sebastian (Ian Sullivan). In a lesser production, one not so sumptuously visual and aural, this might seem lazy. Here, it illustrates Shakespeare's ironic subtitle "What You Will," providing the perfunctory happy ending while dwelling on more soulful matters.
Most of this cast also plays in Titus Andronicus, in rotation with Twelfth Night. Set designer Lisi Stoessel's sparkling seascape transforms into dark wood and red curtains, with Cromie's ominous organ music provoking horror-film chills and chortles. The violent, sprawling revenge tale features Kahn in the title role as a Roman general victimized by his new emperor, Saturninus (McLenigan, in an hilariously campy but committed performance) and his sexy evil queen Tamora (Crocker), whose Goths he recently defeated in war.
Cromie's clever use of puppets and shadow play is an inventive solution to the play's staging problems — a pit, a rape, stabbings, behandings — and makes the most of the cast memebers, who double as voices and puppeteers. This is pulled off particularly well by Lesley Berkowitz as Titus' daughter Lavinia — the mental effects of her trauma are made brutally physical as the angelic Berkowitz switches after the character's rape and mutilation from human actor to operator of a shell-shocked puppet. We simultaneously see who Lavinia was, and what her father's vicious enemies have made her. In a lighter way, when Tamora's sons finally expire, the actor voicing and working their puppets (Ian Sullivan) is also stabbed.
With Grand Guignol sensibilities — the French style of pleasurable horror, often performed with puppets, that was popular in the late 1890s — this Titus has a Sweeney Todd, steampunk feel. Actors wear scuffed and tattered Edwardian garb by Natalia del la Torre, and Shaplin's footlights accentuate their garish white makeup. The play's bloody finale hits a high note of gleeful depravity after two hours of intermissionless, relentless crescendo. It's a unique and effective approach to a rarely seen play that feels refreshingly modern.
The two very different productions complement each other well: Twelfth Night 's comedy is strengthened and made new by restraint and reflection, Titus ' drama is enlivened by its grimly humorous excesses. PST shows what repertory, common in British and Canadian companies but seldom attempted in the U.S., can accomplish: a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Through May 20, $25-$35, 2111 Sansom St., 215-496-8001, phillyshakes.org.