Maimings and murder and rape and beheadings and cannibalism and death by starvation and, well, more murder: Even by the standards of the contemporary world, Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" is a pretty gory play. It bears more similarities to "Reservoir Dogs" than "Romeo and Juliet," a resemblance that Chesapeake Shakespeare Company seized upon for its current production of "Titus Andronicus."
CSC's program says this production is set in America in the 1980s, but it feels more like a dystopic version of the contemporary world: Titus Andronicus, a renowned Roman general, and his sons all wear red and white camo-patterned outfits; the Goths with whom Titus has been at war are all decked out in sleek black; Saturninus and Bassianus, the sons of the late emperor of Rome, look just a little bit sleazy in their dark, slim-fitting suits. The main set piece is an impressive three-story facade of a crumbling, spooky gray manor, and the scenery and costuming is all complemented by the live rock band providing musical interludes and occasionally accompanying death scenes. I'm usually skeptical of Shakespeare productions that give the plays a contemporary setting, mostly because the change in time often feels more like a superficial attempt to connect with contemporary audiences than an artistic decision meant to enhance the play. But in this case, the change in setting, as well as some other directorial choices, actually heightened the audience's experience of the play and brought out some of the humor and sheer ridiculousness of "Titus Andronicus'" violence.
In the play, the titular general (Michael P. Sullivan) returns to Rome, victorious from war with the Goths, and brings the Queen of Goths Tamora (Karin Rosnizeck) and three of her sons in tow as prisoner. He presents them all to Saturninus (Vince Eisenson) and Bassianus (Keegan Cassady), the sons of the late Roman emperor who have been squabbling over which one of them will get to take the throne. Upon his arrival, Titus sacrifices one of the queen's sons, despite her desperate pleas for mercy, and she and her two remaining sons swear to wreak revenge on him. Titus is informed that the people of Rome have voted to make him emperor, but he refuses and gives the throne to Saturninus instead. The sleazy Saturninus proposes to marry Titus' daughter Lavinia (Rachael Jacobs) and Titus agrees, even though Lavinia is already betrothed to, and in love with, Bassianus. Titus gets into a fight with his sons about it and coolly pulls out a gun and shoots one of his sons. Saturninus then notices how attractive Tamora is and decides to marry her instead, denouncing the Andronicus family for its violence. Tamora, now the empress of Rome, convinces Saturninus to pardon Titus and begins her plot for revenge that will spur a back-and-forth struggle of violent vengeance between her and Titus.
Already you might have questions. Why did Titus turn down the role of emperor? Why the fuck did he kill his own son? How did Saturninus not know that his own brother was betrothed already to Lavinia? CSC's production seems to argue that none of these plot points really matter, as the only things the main characters really delight in are strife and violence—which it illustrates gleefully by having Titus' weirdo grandson (Kelsey Painter) pour blood into a large bucket onstage every time someone dies. It's gruesome and yet you can't help but laugh. CSC plays up the humor in the play's violence—near the end, as Tamora shrieks at Titus for killing another one of his children in front of her, she sprays mouthfuls of the meat pie she had just been shoving into her face—and adds a few extra gruesome touches to further push the absurdity of the violence: In a scene that CSC added to the play, Tamora's sons Demetrius (James Jager) and Chiron (Séamus Miller) happily beat the shit out of a random passerby as the band plays a rock version of 'Singin' in the Rain' in a clear nod to "A Clockwork Orange"; late in the play, Titus mails insane-sounding letters to Saturninus vowing vengeance, but CSC has him mail a few packages of hearts and body parts, too. Tamora manipulates Saturninus for her plot of revenge by wiggling sexily on top of him, so that Saturninus has to hop awkwardly offstage as if trying to hide an erection. It's fun and absurd, without feeling too campy.
Wisely, the one act of violence that CSC didn't play up for laughs is Chiron and Demetrius raping Lavinia and cutting off her hands and tongue so that she can't tell anyone what happened to her. Chiron and Demetrius chasing the small Lavinia around the stage as Tamora eggs them on is the one scene of the play that feels truly terrifying, and though the play doesn't show the actual violence, the aftermath is haunting: Lavinia wanders out of the woods shaking, blood dripping from her mouth, the end of her arms wrapped in bandages, bloody handprints smeared across the white slip she's wearing. Although Lavinia can no longer speak, Jacobs clearly conveys the terror and shame that she feels, so that when she gives Titus a pleading look and small nod at the end of the play just second before he snaps her neck, the audience understands why.
The director, Ian Gallanar, only really seemed to miss the mark on the play's tone with the characterization of Chiron, who is over the top and animalistic, with Tamora's lover Aaron the Moor (Gregory Burgess) frequently feeding Chiron treats from his hand as if he's a dog. It felt more bizarre than funny, and made Chiron's violent tendencies seem more excusable, as though they were animal urges rather than inarguably human ones.
Standing in contrast to that was Burgess' brilliant, unnerving portrayal of Aaron. He seems like a mild, almost gentlemanly figure at first, before you realize that he is the cold-hearted engineer of Tamora's plans for revenge. We, the audience, laugh at the vengeance and blood and guts because laughter seems like the best way to register our discomfort with and distaste for the violence; Aaron laughs at his own murderous deeds because he revels in them. Near the end of the play, when he lets out a hair-raising, high-pitched laugh and declares, "Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things as willingly as one would kill a fly, and nothing grieves me heartily indeed but that I cannot do ten thousand more," no one laughs with him.
"Titus Andronicus" plays at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company through Nov. 15. For more information, visit chesapeakeshakespeare.com.