In writing “Titus Andronicus,” one could imagine that William Shakespeare was not in a very good mood as he put quill to parchment. His dark, revenge tragedy is a bloody, violent exploration of the complexities of humanity that has unsettled audiences for centuries.
'Titus Andronicus' has been 'derided for its supposedly over-the-top violence, but in fact, the tone of the play ... can seem contemporary or modern to the spectator familiar with, for example, (Quentin) Tarantino films,' said UI Professor Andrea Stevens, who adapted this version.
The play follows the fictional Titus Andronicus, a general in the Roman army who returns to Rome following his triumphant victory over the Goths, led by Queen Tamora, who, along with her sons Alarbus, Chiron and Demetrius, is now his captive. To avenge the death of his sons in battle, Titus sacrifices Tamora’s son Alarbus. The distraught queen vows her revenge and enlists the help of her remaining sons.
Newly named Emperor Saturninus, a buffoon, declares that he will marry Lavinia, daughter of Titus, despite the fact that she is engaged to his brother, Bassianus. Titus agrees, but Bassianus refuses to give her up. The disgruntled emperor then shocks everyone by marrying Queen Tamora, thus putting her plan for revenge against Titus into motion.
Aaron, the queen’s confidante, instructs Chiron and Demetrius to kill Bassianus so they can kidnap and rape Lavinia, which they do, leaving her horribly disfigured by the ordeal.
Aaron then frames the murder on Titus’ sons, Martius and Qunitus, who are then sentenced to death by the emperor. The clever Aaron then slithers his way to Titus with the poor, mutilated Lavinia in tow, claiming that the emperor will spare the lives of his sons if he cuts off his hand and sends it to him. A grief-stricken Titus complies, only to have his beloved sons’ severed heads, along with his own hand, delivered to him. The violence continues, much like a chapter in the John Wick chronicles, where there are too many atrocities to count.
In her adaptation, Andrea Stevens has intentionally streamlined the text, zeroing in on the disturbing extremes to which these characters are driven. The intimate setting of the Studio Theatre holds the audience captive, and the discomfort that is inevitable by this production’s viewing presents itself in a variety of ways.
This Illinois Theatre season is one that is committed to offering diverse, inclusive and accessible theater, and this production not only offers closed captioning for the hearing impaired, it features deaf actor Andrew Morrill, in the title role. Morrill shares the role with hearing and speaking actor Rachael Fox, who appears on stage with him in a theatrical doubling intended to enhance the life of the play. American Sign Language is incorporated throughout the production.
Scenic designer Jose Manuel Diaz-Soto presents a contemporary forum, with appropriate, and effective details, like caution tape, litter and graffiti, all enhanced by the efforts of media designer John Boesche, which gave this production a post-apocalyptic feel.
This was echoed in the costume design of Courtney Anderson Brown, who assembled a modern, science fiction look with a Shakespearean flair. Sound designer Dominic Rosales employed a set of timpani to provide an eerie driving pulse throughout the production.
“Titus Andronicus” is not for the faint of heart. Historically, it is considered Shakespeare’s bloodiest, most violent work. That being said, this production presents an opportunity to revisit this story and view it through a modern lens. For mature audiences only.