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Bloody Shakespeare

    In William Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus, the hero’s daughter, Lavinia, is brutally raped in an act of revenge. Then her assailants cut off her hands. Then they cut out her tongue. She staggers out of the woods where she is raped, covered in blood, unable to speak, and is barely able to move.

   And that’s the mildest part of the play.

    After the rape, things continue to get rough and the blood flows all over the stage. There is so much blood spilled in the play that it could fill up the blood banks of ten hospitals. Several people get their hands cut off, others are beheaded, a few Goths are executed, people’s throats are slit, others slain in human sacrifices and still others mutilated. A few dozen are stabbed multiple times. You need a blood drenched scorecard to keep track of all the murder and mayhem.

   Titus Andronicus, a creepy, blood-soaked play that is rarely staged (I wonder why), opened last weekend at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey at Drew University, Madison, N.J. It is nearly three hours of rape, assaults and murder. There is so much murder and bloodshed that it makes The Godfatherlook like The Bells of St. Mary’s.

    The theater has not staged Titus in thirty years and now, no matter what your blood type, it is back again. It is chilling, stomach churning, scary and deeply upsetting. Yet it has a haunting pull on the audience. Yes, Oh My God, it is just awful. But you want to keep watching it. It has the pull of a theatrical train wreck.

   The production at the Shakespeare Theater is a very good staging of a very bad play. The acting is sensational, the direction by Brian B. Crowe nothing short of superb, the old Roman sets of Dick Block magnificent. The ending will have you gasping.

    Titus was a big hit when it was originally staged in Shakespeare’s England in the late 1590s because audiences in that era loved plays with lots of murder and bloodshed. That’s awful? What about all the millions of Americans who watch bloody shows on television today? All the cop shows?  The Vampire shows? The Zombie series? What’s the difference?    

  The play, unlike Shakespeare’s other Monarchy plays, is pure fiction. All of this never happened (thank God!). The chair of Roman Emperor is up for grabs and causes a dispute by two men who crave it, Saturninus and Bassianus. No one can decide between them, so the decision is left to Titus Andronicus, the hero army general and head of the Andronicii tribe, just returned from his victorious war against the Goths with hundreds of prisoners, including the beautiful queen, Tamora, whose son the Romans have executed. He picks Saturninis. At the same time, Saturninus has fallen in love and married Tamora, who swears revenge for her son’s death on all of Rome to the audience. Her lover, the Moor Aaron, will help her. As will her two crazy sons, Chiron and Demetrius.

    As if there was not enough gore in the play, the grand finale is a dinner party in which Goth Queen Tamora unknowingly eats a meat pie made from her recently slain son’s body (no ketchup, either). Her hubby Saturninus not only does so, too, with gusto. but complements the chef on his work. It is very Monty Pythonesque. Hannibal Lecter would love this scene.

    The play also has some really sick humor that, based on the laughter from the audience.  works rather well. In one scene the handless Lavinia tries, quite unsuccessfully, to eat dinner. In another, Titus and his two sons argue loudly over who will cut off who’s hand to send to the King as a ransom payment to get Titus’ two other sons released from prison. My hand? No, your hand. No, my hand. It’s grim but it works. 

    Director Crowe does fine work in keeping this rather large casts in motion throughout the play and in milking every bit of horror out of it. He wants to make sure nobody in the audience gets a good night’s sleep after they walk out of the theater. He gets wonderful work from a highly talented cast. The leader of it is Bruce Cromer as Titus. He is personable and yet tricky and not only makes bad decisions throughout his life but suffers badly from all of them. Cromer is joined by a talented cast. There is Benjamin Eakeley as Saturninus. Oliver Archibald as Bassianus, Robert Cuccioli as Titus’ brother Marcus, Clark Scott Carmichael as Titus’ son Lucius, Fiona Robberson as Lavinia, Vanesa Morosco as the evil Goth Queen Tamora, Christ White as Aaron, the Moor, Torsten Johnson as Tamora’s son Demetrius and  Quentin McQuiston as Tamora’s crazy son Chiron.

There is no moral to the play, in which just about everybody is immoral. It is a lesson, and the lesson is that vengeance is not a good idea. People get caught up in revenge and they go way, way too far. Misguided vengeance not only shows the immorality of the people who did you wrong, but shows the immorality in you, too.

    The argument, of course, is whether a gory play is a bad play. It revolts you but intrigues you at the same time. And, too, the final scene in Titus Andronicusis staged as part gore and part macabre humor. The audience is disgusted by the meat pie eating scene, but, I could tell by looking around the theater, just loved it, too.

    It’s like that old restaurant joke: the dinner was terrible and the portions were so small.

   One drawback to the play is that you do not learn much about the history of Rome in the era that the fictional Titus ruled, that appears to be around 300 AD. You are told that tribes ruled Rome, but there is no explanation of how they did so. There were a number of tribes in that era. They were a bit like political parties, broken down into small divisions. The tribes were instrumental in governing Rome and the Empire itself. The play ran nearly three hours and surely Shakespeare, or director Cromer, could have devoted a few minutes to this bit of history. A few paragraphs about the tribes could have been printed in the program, as historical notes usually are at the theater.

    I don’t know how many people will enjoy this play, but I know Freddy Krueger would love it.

 PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. Scenic Design: Dick Block, Costumes: Yao Chen, Lighting: Andrew Hungerford, Sound: Karin Graybash, Fight Director: Rick Sordelet. The play is directed by Brian B. Crowe. It runs through August 5.