Hamlet Isn’t Dead’s next play takes on Shakespeare in all its bloody glory.
Titus Andronicus is a play that only really makes sense to present around Halloween. Its incredibly bloody plot features not just murder but the cutting off of hands and tongues, rape and even cannibalism. Hamlet Isn't Dead's production at WOW Cafe Theatre, directed by David Andrew Laws, doesn't try to make Shakespeare's most violent play anything that it's not, letting this theatrical slasher shine in all its blood-stained glory.
A Story of Revenge
The play begins as the Romans have just conquered the kingdom of the Goths. Ignoring Queen Tamora's pleas for mercy, Titus has his sons execute her oldest son, and Tamora declares her eternal revenge. Everything begins to go awry when Titus's daughter Lavinia refuses to marry the newly crowned Emperor Saturninus, announcing her love for his younger brother Bassianus, and Saturninus decides instead to wed Tamora out of spite.
As Tamora and her sons exact their revenge on Bassianus and Lavinia, the crew run wild over Rome, having affairs behind the emperor's back and scheming to get Titus's sons arrested. Blindsided by the rage of the Goths, Titus's family must scramble to defeat them, or else soon there won't be any of them left. And in this play of sudden and unexpected murders, no one is safe.
True to the Halloween theme, the set of Titus Andronicus is all white and the costumes either simple white (Romans) or black (Goths), so when blood spatters it has the maximum effect. As splashes of blood accumulate on the simple, streamlined set, the true magnitude of the violence depicted on stage becomes clear.
The Seductively Evil Cast
With such a large cast of characters, the most complex and fascinating ones to watch are not the heroes at all, but instead the Goths. From the twisted, animalistic Demetrius (Joe Raik) and Chiron (Laurel Percival), with the subversive twist of having one of the pair of rapists played by a woman, to the noble but morally black Moor Aaron (Jamal Crowelle), this is a play that glories in evil. The scene of Aaron's capture, in which he announces regret that he has not had the time to do more dark deeds, is rivaled only by Tamora's monologue swearing revenge on Titus in the first scene for sheer power and horrified fascination.
Like many of Shakespeare's early plays that Hamlet Isn't Dead has explored, this show is all about the women. Samantha Maurice's cunning and ruthless Tamora controls every plot for most of the play, while Megan Greener's performance as Lavinia, expertly costumed and acted after the character's loss of hands, tongue and chastity, provides an eerie counterpoint to the otherwise comic level of violence. With the entire cast of actors so committed to their roles, however, even the cannibalism at the end of the play feels no more absurd than any other moment.
The Value of a Life
This blatant disregard for the value of human life is a commentary on the Roman obsession with preserving the family honor, of course. The play also brings up some interesting questions about racial and political dynamics after war—are the Goths inherently cruel and evil, or are they waging a brutal but effective rebellion against their conquerors? Ultimately, however, Titus Andronicus is a family drama; everyone in this play is related to someone else, and family rivalries prove to be the most vicious of all.
All together, Hamlet Isn't Dead's production was a little sloppy, with the clear sounds of items being dropped backstage and a few missed light cues. But it is still an entertaining and utterly absurd piece, one that will leave you wondering, "What on earth was Shakespeare thinking?" For that, if nothing else, it's worth seeing. And make sure you don't step in blood on the way out.
Titus Andronicus plays at the WOW Cafe Theatre through November 2.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.