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Blood, Pizza And Nuance: Kentucky Shakespeare's 'Titus'

Courtesy Kentucky Shakespeare, Brian Owens

About two minutes into Kentucky Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus,” a pair of glassy, bloody eyeballs roll across the warehouse floor and end up directly in front of my feet, leaving a dotted red trail in their wake. This was a minuscule sample of the carnage to come.

In the Shakespearean canon, “Titus” is a singularity. Created at a time early in his career when revenge tragedies were all the rage, the Bard went full out with the blood and body count.

It's not exactly an obvious choice for a company best known for their family-friendly Central Park productions. But as artistic director Matt Wallace said, that’s why it’s never been done by the company before, and it's being held inside -- in a warehouse space behind PLAY in Butchertown, no less.

Wallace also gave it an R-rating. What the script lacks in depth (some scholars call “Titus” a “poor man’s ‘Lear,’” devoid of the more sophisticated language and psychological complexity present in his later tragedies), it makes up for in gore. And in Kentucky Shakespeare’s version, leather.

Lots of leather.

The play starts simply enough. Titus Andronicus (the brilliant Jon Huffman) arrives home from war with the Goths. He brings with him prisoners and body bags, but ultimately refuses to take the title of emperor of Rome. That job, he insists, belongs to Saturninus (Neill Robertson), the eldest son of the old emperor. Saturninus is overjoyed and in order to pay back Titus, says he will take Titus’ daughter, Lavinia (Katherine Martin) as his bride.

That is, until Bassianus (Kyle Ware), Saturninus’ brother, reminds everyone that he is already engaged to Lavinia. Saturninus bristles, but then shrugs it off, announcing that he will instead take Tamora (played fabulously by Jennifer Pennington), queen of the Goths -- and one of Titus’ prisoners of war -- as his empress. Here’s where things start going downhill.

Tamora is power-hungry and has a vendetta against Titus; Saturninus is a little weak and susceptible to her wiles -- and, in this version, her stash of cocaine and pills. With Tamora’s help, her adult sons (Jon Patrick O’Brien and Jon Becraft) kill Bassianus and rape Lavinia, cutting off her hands and tongue for good measure. The moment where Martin hobbles across stage, turns to the crowd, and opens her mouth is perhaps the most stomach-churning.

Almost immediately after, Tamora’s secret lover Aaron (an evil Moor played with disarming zeal by Dathan Hooper) hacks off Titus’ hand. It’s at this point we find out that Aaron has helped mastermind all the crimes committed and shows no sympathy. Throughout, lighting and sound designer Jason Weber helps maintain a certain ominous weight in the production.

The revenge game keeps escalating to absurdity -- remember “Sweeney Todd?” Well, Shakespeare baked people into pies onstage about 380 years before Stephen Sondheim brought it to Broadway -- before it finally screeches to a halt. Almost like a high-speed chase in which both cars finally run out of gas. In this case, Shakespeare simply ran out of people to kill.

But for a play that is so gruesome, Kentucky Shakespeare somehow manages to inject emotional nuance and just a little camp. For all the bloodcurdling rage, the cast is equally adept, if not more so, at the tender moments -- particularly in the relationships between the Andronici, or when Aaron meets his child for the very first time.

The costuming choices were cheeky (like Huffman rocking a “Kiss the Cook” apron while making people pies) and well-suited to a modern interpretation. And the little touches, like updating the famed “Titus Andronicus” feast to pizza and West 6th IPA, were truly delightful.

After the play, Matt Wallace stepped onstage -- beer, pizza and blood smeared behind him. He thanked the audience for doing something a little different with the company. But in reality, it wasn’t really so different.

While on the surface “Titus” isn’t your typical Kentucky Shakespeare play, it brims with the same wit and resonance we’ve come to expect -- and will continue to expect -- from such an impeccable company.

"Titus Andronicus" plays through October 31. More information is available here.