Titus Andronicus
Intiman Theatre, 269-1900. $30-$42 (25 & under, $10).
Through April 27.

Nowadays Shakespeare may be the pinnacle of highbrow art, but in his day the man had to compete with cockfights and bear baiting. Though scholars may argue that Titus Andronicus (one of Shakespeare's earlier plays) prefigures elements of Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet, it's just as important to recognize that it's the ancestor of such bloody rape-and-revenge fantasies as Ms. 45 and I Spit On Your Grave. The first act of Intiman's stunning production ends after a series of gruesome horrors that would make any splatter-movie schlockmeister proud. (However, the production is fairly restrained about gore; hands are lopped off with surprising discretion.)

As the play opens, the Roman general Titus Andronicus has returned from battle, bringing with him the Goth queen Tamora and her sons as prisoners; despite Tamora's pleas for mercy, he ritually sacrifices one of her children. Though the adoring public wants to name him emperor, Titus passes the title on to one of the former emperor's sons, Saturninus--who, as his first royal act, frees the Goths and takes Tamora as his bride, spurning Titus' daughter Lavinia. When Lavinia's brothers help her run away with Saturninus' brother, Titus proclaims his family traitors and even kills one of his own sons. This divided family swiftly falls prey to Tamora's revenge, until Titus finally sees that his loyalty to the state is unrequited, goes a little crazy, and sets his own vengeance in motion.

Director Bartlett Sher has staged Titus' elaborate catalogue of murder, mutilation, decapitation, and cannibalism with remarkable skill. The cast--a laudable mix of local and out-of-town talent--is impeccable; the set and lighting are spare but gorgeous; precise live percussion and trumpet lend propulsion to the story. This visually rich production is sprinkled with a clever and compelling mix of period and contemporary elements (including the most sardonic use of a bug zapper you will ever see). The second act opens with thick books being thrown violently across the stage, pages flapping helplessly, as if to toss literature and history on the dustheap in the face of such unrestrained barbarism. One of the play's dominant themes--how violent revenge only invites more violence in return--should resonate with current international events.

And yet, for all this vigor and zest, most of the production is emotionally inert. It's virtually impossible to care about Titus; he's a rigid, brutal patriarch who sets his allegiance to the state above his own family, who dismisses a mother's pleading for the life of her child. His sons and daughter don't have enough stage time to garner any real empathy either, so the horrors that befall them remain just that--horrors, a series of gruesome events, no more personal or sad than the butchery of nubile teens in Friday the 13th. It's not until Titus' own elaborate revenge gets underway (when he becomes an avenging parent like Charles Bronson in Death Wish, only with an alarming sense of humor) that the production finds a darkly comic tone that's both caustic and genuinely involving.

In most productions, this would be a fatal problem, but this production has so much else to offer, both in the clarity of its interpretation and the inventiveness of its images, that you should see it regardless. Under Bartlett Sher's leadership, Intiman Theatre is taking genuine chances (both in the plays selected and the sometimes daring interpretations); even when these chances don't wholly succeed, the energy and imagination at work is stimulating and exciting. Quite simply, Sher's work helps give me hope that theater can--in the face of film, television, and video games--remain vital. BRET FETZER

Nine Holes Goes Crazy
Theatre Babylon at the Union Garage, 720-1942. $12 (pay-what-you-can on Thursdays).
Through April 27.

Very short plays, like very short fiction, are the form boiled down to its essence. To make the form wily and substantial, it takes genuine skill and an appetite for distilling an idea, or set of ideas, with the swiftest economy possible. Theatre Babylon's seventh annual production of Nine Holes--which features nine plays that are 10 minutes in length, each by different playwrights, and directed by nine different directors--succeeds and fails in equal measure.

The plays circle around the theme of "crazy" in all its permutations, from actual mental illness, feigned insanity, and nervous breakdowns to "crazy in love" and sleep deprivation. Crazy suits the structure, with its virtual babel of voices among the ensemble cast, playwrights, and directors, offering a Whitman's Sampler of talent. It makes for an uneven program, with some pieces falling flat or never finding their stride.

The benefit of the short play format is that if you don't enjoy one piece, it won't last long. Unfortunately, the weaker material in Nine Holes Goes Crazy is in the first half; intermission seems a long way off. Act II delivers stronger stuff, and the cast responds with a syncopated sense of comic rhythm. In Jane Austen's Disease, by Meagan Piccochi, a young man on the eve of his wedding takes his sister to a shrink for fear that she'll disrupt the ceremony, because she lives in the world of Jane Austen novels--taking on the mannerisms, speech, and name of one of her characters. The absurdity of the situation is given sly sparkle, with Rebecca Lingafelter and John Bianchi delivering pitch-perfect performances that are by hairpin turns funny and touching. It represents the form at its well-oiled best; it's funny, moving, and concise. NATE LIPPENS