“Give the Public What It Wants”. This mantra of theatrical management goes back a long, long time, and long before he became the Elizabethan age’s Boy Wonder, William Shakespeare wrote a rather standard revenge play to pay the bills and bring in the crowds.
You can almost see him, quill in hand, ruminating on who to bump off next: ‘Start out with a murder- wait, let’s murder a queen’s son right in front of her- that’s good, now add some political intrigues, pointless bloodshed, a few more murders along the way, and mix in three families vying for one-upmanship. In viciousness, let’s see, some cannibalism, rape, mutilation, cut off a few heads, threaten to kill a baby, hmm, have I forgotten anything?’
Nope. It’s all there in Titus Andronicus.
Revenge plays of the era were filled with violence for violence’s sake. Think of today’s horror genre as a parallel. Do we, watching Freddy Krueger, really care what happens to the Sweet Young Thing? Of course not. We’re here to see the macabre happen to cardboard characters. If anything, we’re rooting for Freddy.
So it was with standard fare revenge plays of the time: bring on the swords and the stage blood, for the groundlings were there to see royals chop each other to pieces.
Shakespeare’s legacy, of course, was to turn the original Pulped Fiction into Poetry: the prince who cannot decide upon revenge (Hamlet); the warring families paying for their endless war with their childrens’ deaths (Romeo and Juliet). We’re used to finely drawn characters full of depth and self awareness from Mr. S. But Titus Andronicus was written in the beginning of his writing career. You can see glimmers of genius, hints of poetry in it, but for most lovers of Shakespeare, the delights of his later works far eclipse this little performed piece. In Titus, characters just do things. They don’t think about them or regret anything afterwards. It’s as if a chess master is playing checkers.
The problem with Titus Andronicus for most modern audiences is that there’s no one to root for. There isn’t a single sympathetic or redeeming character in the whole shebang. Everyone believes in an eye for an eye, a hand for a hand; there’s no moral ending or lesson learned, unless it’s Don’t Live In Ancient Rome Under Any Circumstances.
It’s still an awful lot of fun, especially as imagined by Baltimore’s Chesapeake Shakespeare. Before the show even starts, a live punk band, with vocals courtesy of the cast, blares from aloft for the preshow. You know what you’re getting into before the show begins. The stage is bare save for a single pillar with chains set dead center, a portent of unpleasantness to come.
The production is set in a never-was mixture of punk, Mafioso and guerilla warlord chic, most in shades of grey, black and red. Scenic designer Kathryn Kawecki turned the back proscenium, last seen as a delightful Tuscan villa for Much Ado About Nothing, into a dank and haunted mansion worthy of a Vincent Price flick. Costumer Jacy Barber had a few missteps keeping the looks coherent – most notably, Tamora’s steampunk attire, complete with little hat, and Tamora’s banquet costume, a baby blue ballgown, seemed wildly out of place. Overall, though, characters were costumed in punked-out leather and studs, most of which end up bloody red by play’s end.
Chesapeake pulls no punches here: it’s gore for gore’s sake, with no pretty red ribbons to symbolize blood. They’re parading buckets of stage goo in front of our eyes. Characters rant and rave, brandishing knives, chains, and guns, and for most of them, it doesn’t end well.
Frankly, it’s a blast.
Several actors seem to be having a ripping good time: Gregory Burgess, as Aaron the Moor, plays evil to the hilt; Michael P. Sullivan as Titus Andronicus is hardhearted at the beginning and nearly mad at the end, and Karin Rosnizeck as Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, is suitably sultry and wicked at the same time.
October 22 – November 15, 2015
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
7 South Calvert Street
Baltimore, MD 21202
Tickets: $15 – $49
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Though director Ian Gallanar could have reined in some of the more egregious overacting, the play calls for it, and the hell-bent-for-leather style suits the overall tone of the piece. I did find myself wishing for more dark humor- there’s a good deal of it to be found in the script- and it wouldn’t have detracted from the general Quentin Tarantino style the production was shooting for. Quite the opposite. For heads do actually roll during this production, and why not utilize a modern audience’s tendency to giggle at rolling rubber heads? C’mon. It’s funny.
It’s no accident that Chesapeake Shakespeare scheduled Titus Andronicus for October. It’s a horror show, all right, and if blood and gore and the Bard are three of your favorite things, you’ll have a screaming good time.
Not recommended for the young or squeamish.
Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare . Director: Ian Gallanar . Featuring Vince Eisenson as Saturninus, Keegan Cassady as Bassianus, Michael p Sullivan as Titus Andronicus, Lisa Hodsell as Marcus, Rachael Jacobs as Lavinia, Joel Ottenheimer as Lucius, Caitlin Carbone as Quintus, Matthew Ancarrow as Martius, Zach Bopst as Publius, Kelsey Painter as Young Lucius, Karin Rosnizeck as Tamora, Queen of the Goths, James Jager as Demetrius, Seamus Miller as Chiron, Gregory Burgess as Aaron the Moor; Amal Saade as Nurse, Kate Fornton as Goth/Ensemble/Vocalist; Phil Vannoorbeeck as Mutius/Aemilius . Scenic Design: Kathryn Kawecki . Lighting Design: Daniel O’Brian . Sound Design: Ian Gallanar . Music Composer: Chip Salerno . Musicians: Kate Fornton, Nick Delaney, Tom Delaney, Chris Engler (AKA Johnny & the Meat Pies) . Fight Choreography: Chris Niebling . Costumes: Jacy Barber . Technical Director: Daniel O’Brien . Stage Manager: Lauren Engler . Produced by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.