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URBANA — One of Shakespeare’s most intense tragedies opens tonight at the Krannert Center.

Set late in the history of the Roman Empire, a fictional general engages in a brutal game of revenge with a queen of the Goths.

Dramaturg Vincent Carlson said the Illinois Theatre production does not turn away from the violence that made “Titus Andronicus” popular in its day, though its reputation later suffered. In recent years, it has made a resurgence.

“Thematically, it is dark. And we explore the depths of that darkness. We found that it is important when doing this play to acknowledge the reality and cruelty of the revenge and violence as Shakespeare wrote it,” Carlson said. “We want these characters to be complicated and motivated by self-interesting desires. Not a single character in the play is wholly pure, nor are they 100 percent evil. They are complex humans that are operating inside the pain and horror of a revenge-fueled society.”

Andrea Stevens adapted “Titus.” She is an associate professor of English, theater and medieval studies at the University of Illinois and is intrigued by a tragedy whose popularity has ebbed and flowed over the centuries.

“It was one of Shakespeare’s earliest box office successes and very popular in its own time,” she said. “It is true that the play fell out of favor and didn’t really find new, appreciative audiences until an important Stratford production in the 1950s starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

"It’s been derided for its supposedly over-the-top violence, but in fact, the tone of the play — that is, its tendency to include humor and wordplay alongside violence — can seem contemporary or modern to the spectator familiar with, for example, (Quentin) Tarantino films.”

Stevens is quick to add that she did not change Shakespeare’s words:

“In the case of this production of ‘Titus Andronicus,’ ‘adaptation’ does not mean that we’ve revised or rewritten the play in updated language, but rather that we’ve cut it for a more streamlined performance,” she said.

“Titus” is dark, but not without lighter moments.

“There is great pain in this fictional world; its inhabitants are capable of ferocious acts of violence. And in these truths, we find that in many heartbreaking ways, it reflects our own real world,” Andrews said. “But treating the story honestly and sincerely is a way of exploring the troubled psyches of these individuals, their selfish actions, their dark potential.

"It’s also worth noting that the play contains humor and laughter. Shakespeare is able to take the characters and the audience on a ride through different tones.”

The fact that the play is obscure to many made it attractive.

“Every major Shakespeare company in America and England is looking to these lesser-known plays in different ways,” Carlson said. “Some of it is certainly a pushback against trotting out the favorite classics, ‘Midsummer,’ and ‘Hamlet’ every few years. But I think a lot of it is motivated by a desire to explore what it is, idiosyncratically, about these plays that is interesting. How can they be presented in a modern world in a modern way?”

There is always the amazing writing of Shakespeare in this play that precedes many of his greatest works.

“The play has exquisite poetry and imagery, and in that, it is a signature Shakespeare play,” Carlson said. “The words do the work. The words move the characters. The characters move the story.

"And for an actor, for a student actor? There is no greater opportunity than sinking into great words, great characters, great stories.”

Reporter

Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is pwood@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).