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3 out of 4 stars

What if William Shatner hadn't run off to Hollywood, but had stuck with the stage and, largely, with the overwrought acting style he epitomized in the Sixties on Star Trek? Well, he may have turned into someone a little bit like John Vickery.

Vickery, a Californian actor who has himself appeared on three Star Trek spinoffs, gets his time in the Stratford spotlight this summer in director Darko Tresnjak's B-movie take on Shakespeare's most over-the-top tragedy, Titus Andronicus.

In the deep, resonant voice that he used to originate the role of Scar in The Lion King musical, Vickery's Titus doesn't so much speak as sing his lines, often giving them an ironic curl at the end that makes him sound like a sardonic Isaac Hayes. It's a slightly tongue-in-cheek tone Tresnjak seems to have built his production around – and, until it runs out of steam, it's electrical entertainment.

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Tresnjak and Vickery set up the darkly comic tone right at the start. Returning triumphantly from war to Rome with a cage full of weeping, conquered Goths, Titus addresses himself solemnly to the Tomb of the Andronici: "Here grow no damned grudges, here are no storms …"

Distracted by the sobbing of Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Claire Lautier), for her recently sacrificed son, however, Titus stops this line to scream at her, "No noise!" He then continues, sober once more, " … no noise, but silence and eternal sleep."

This terrible and funny outburst is a hint of the Titus to come, when he sheds the last shred of his code of honour and much of his sanity, and begins his campaign of revenge against the corrupt powers that be.

But it also makes us ask the question: Whose revenge tragedy is this anyway? Tresnjak clearly shows that the Goths – gleefully vile as they may be – have ample reason to take justice into their own hands.

Pardoned and then married by the easily enchanted Emperor Saturninus (Sean Arbuckle), Tamora plots the violent destruction of the remaining Andronici with her Moor lover, Aaron (an unconvincingly evil Dion Johnstone). Her sons Chiron and Demetrius – here, confusingly but nevertheless amusingly, played as a couple of sadistic eunuchs by Brendan Murray and Bruce Godfree – rape and mutilate Titus's daughter Lavinia (Amanda Lisman) and murder her husband, Bassianus (Skye Brandon). Two of Titus's seemingly unending stock of sons are framed for that death and Titus himself loses a hand, senselessly, trying to save them from execution.

This sets up the second cycle of revenge, which is even more stomach-turning – though Tresnjak largely stylizes the acts of violence with flashes of red light and otherworldly sound effects. In the orgy of blood-spilling that ends the play, he sets off a cannon of confetti as if we're at the climax of a Broadway musical.

Titus Andronicus was once Shakespeare's most critically reviled play, but its excesses and uncomfortable mix of merry cruelty and awful puns have not had any trouble finding favour in a post-Tarantino world. Some of Tresnjak's most inventive gruesomeness seem inspired by film, notably when Lavinia dons a couple of special prostheses to enact a particularly fitting torture on Tamora's sons that is indeed, as Titus says, "worse than Procne's."

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Tresnjak's main directorial concept, however, is one that capitalizes on the liveness of theatre: He leaves the house lights up for much of the production and has the characters frequently address the audience as the people of Rome. At times, this increases the intensity, as when Saturninus and Bassianus compete for our affection, but near the end it becomes too informal and even lapses into silliness when snacks are passed around.

Somewhat surprisingly, Vickery's performance is more compelling in the first half than when he goes off his rocker in the second – though that's the case with the entire show, which loses focus as it goes on. Lautier's Tamora is excellent, switching between snarls and seductiveness, but Arbuckle is the production's chief pleasure as the sneering, self-involved Saturninus. Every moment he's on stage is delicious – I only wish more of the performers had taken it that extra step.

Titus Andronicus

  • Written by William Shakespeare
  • Directed by Darko Tresnjak
  • Starring John Vickery
  • At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Titus Andronicus runs at the Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford, Ont., until Sept. 24.

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