NEW YORK — `TITUS ANDRONICUS'' is not one of Shakespeare's most respected plays. Author and critic Christopher Morley once used the word ``drivel'' to describe it, and he's not alone in that assessment. Shakespeare nodded from time to time, and this particular tragedy finds him fast asleep. One challenge in presenting a Shakespeare Marathon, as the New York Shakespeare Festival is currently doing, is that there's no way to dodge the drivel. Wisely, producer Joseph Papp [see interview at left] has scheduled ``Titus Andronicus'' for a summer production (through Sept. 3) in the outdoor Delacorte Theater, where pleasant surroundings remove some of the sting from the play's dull spots and excesses. Unwisely, though, Mr. Papp has chosen to give it an earnest but conventional treatment that does little to improve its bad reputation.
The play takes place in ancient Rome and centers on a grotesque concatenation of murder and revenge. It has enough killings and dismemberments for a ``Friday the 13th'' sequel, and the cannibalistic climax is worthy of ``Sweeney Todd'' and then some. The play pours on horror after horror until the only sensible response from a modern spectator is a good, healthy hoot.
What's the best way to handle such an ungainly play? The surest bet might be a postmodern approach in which the director puts some obvious distance between himself and the text - not simply presenting the play but also analyzing it, through his decisions on staging, performing style, visual elements, and so forth. The result of such a treatment might be absurdist and archetypal at the same time.
Unfortunately, producer Papp and director Michael Maggio have mounted ``Andronicus'' more respectfully than Shakespeare might have intended. The personality of the production is embodied by Donald Moffat in the title role. He's a good actor, and he works hard at putting seriousness and conviction into his performance. But the play's heavy-handed poetry and equally unsubtle action trip him up repeatedly - and there's nothing he can do about the situation but pour on more seriousness and conviction, which can't help proving futile in the end.
Similar fates await most of the other cast members, including Pamela Gien as Lavinia, whose hapless (and tongueless) role requires her to spend most of the play in silence. Kate Mulgrew coaxes some extroverted fun out of Tamora, the Queen of Goth, and Keith David is feisty as Aaron, the Moor she loves. But their efforts aren't enough to save the play.
The technically solid production has scenery by John Lee Beatty, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, costumes by Lewis D. Rampino, and expressive music by Louis Rosen.