These Tragic Puppets Are Hilarious
Puppet Shakespeare Players turn Titus Andronicus into Comedy
Drunk Shakespeare, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, the Accidental Shakespeare Company: the Bard’s plays are constantly being reinterpreted in unusual ways. Even in this offbeat company, however, the Puppet Shakespeare Players stand out. In Puppet Titus Andronicus, now at the Beckett Theatre, one of Shakespeare’s most notoriously bloody tragedies is reimagined by kooky felt creatures with googly eyes.
However, Puppet Shakespeare is much more than an extended joke. Founded in 2012 by a trio of Marymount College theatre arts grads, the troupe has a lofty goal: to bring the Bard back to the masses where he belongs.
“Shakespeare wrote for the groundlings covered in dirt, not the kings and queens,” says company cofounder A.J. Coté, who designs all the puppets and plays multiple puppet characters onstage. “Now his plays have become these hoity-toity things you’re supposed to read in high school and then forget. But so much of his stuff is so f—ing funny and dirty and raunchy. We accentuate all that to make his poetry more accessible to today’s audiences.”
Puppet Shakespeare was actually inspired by a (comparatively) traditional mounting of Hamlet by the American Globe Theatre that Coté and fellow cofounder Ryan Rinkel were involved in. “It was so funny and the cast had such fun with the language,” Rinkel says. “We kept saying that the guy who played Polonius was ‘such a Muppet.’ And then we thought, ‘Wait, what if we just did Hamlet with puppets?’”
That tragedy became their inaugural show, and then came Romeo and Juliet. But Titus is the company’s most ambitious production to date. It’s the first time they’re working Off-Broadway (thanks in large part to co-founder Shane Snider’s rock star dad, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, who’s coproducing), and everything is being realized on a heightened scale, especially the puppets and the performances.
That over-the-top quality suits Titus. The revenge saga is often called Shakespeare’s worst play and is definitely his most nauseating, filled with rape, murder and the amputation of many body parts. “If you try to do it seriously, you can’t,” says Rinkel, who also directs. “I mean, Titus gets his hand chopped off and then turns around and does a soliloquy!”
“It’s very Quentin Tarantino Kill Bill,” adds Coté. “If you do everything hyper-realistically, it’s not going to work. Just look at the recent production at the Globe Theatre in London. People were fainting and puking in the aisles. Hopefully nobody gets sick at our show.” (Unless they’re sickened at the site of cotton stuffing guts and Silly String blood, probably not.)
Streamlined to a pair of taut acts and clocking in at under two hours, Titus features a lot of adlibbing, but it’s not a free-verse-for-all. “Ryan always says the improv needs to inform the Shakespeare,” says Coté. “There are certain places in the script where we know it’s going to happen. He wants us to have ownership of the show and the freedom to experiment throughout the run.”
“But we all love Shakespeare,” Rinkel is quick to add. “We don’t want to go too far. We try to keep what works and throw out what doesn’t. It’s constantly evolving.”
One of the show’s most morbidly funny moments came out of a rehearsal improv of the scene when Titus’ daughter Lavinia (who’s been raped and had her tongue cut out and hands hacked off) tries to tell her family the identity of her attackers. “It’s a ridiculous plot device really,” Rinkel says. “In the script nine months have passed, and she hasn’t found some way to tell them in all that time? We decided to play up that joke.” Played by a Muppet-like puppet with a bright-red face and blonde curls, Lavinia mumbles desperately and gesticulates wildly, and she even shows her father and uncle that her rapists’ names somehow happen to be written on a chalkboard behind them… but they still don’t get it. “At one point we thought she might punch the wall and start bleeding and write their names in blood,” Coté says. “But we decided against that.”
Since Puppet Shakespeare productions are always funny, will the troupe ever tackle the Bard’s comedies? Probably not. Says Coté, “It so much more fun and interesting to find the comedy in these ridiculous tragedies where everyone dies.”
Raven Snook is TDF’s associate editor of online content
Photos by Macks Photography