Did Kentucky Shakespeare take this year’s production of “Titus Andronicus” too far? Or did it take it just to the edge? If last year’s “Titus” was R-rated, then it’s hard to say what to rate this version, because it’s far more brutal than the previous production.
It’s definitely still a horror movie on stage, as it is intended to be, but somehow this year’s staging takes it to the level of “torture porn,” and that will be unsettling for many viewers, including this one. A handful of people walked out before intermission — which was a very smart move, because the second act amps up the discomfort.
Last year, Insider reported the play was two-hours long and included “14 deaths, three severed hands, two severed heads, one severed tongue, a gang rape, a live burial, two acts of cannibalism, a human sacrifice and a parent killing two of his own children.” That alone should serve as a “trigger warning” for potential audience members.
But the fact is, “Titus” is one of Shakespeare’s least-known and performed plays because of that, so you can’t necessarily fault an audience that hasn’t done their homework. When people walked out of the outrageous and outrageously popular “Avenue Q” at the Kentucky Center a few years ago because they thought it was going to be a “cute puppet show,” it’s safer to roll your eyes.
This play may not be your thing, or it may be exactly your thing depending on your stomach for gore and unrepentant acts of horror and relentless acts of violence against women. If watching movies like that is your bag, this production is pretty spectacular.
Titus is a Roman general who returns from war victorious, but he lost 21 of his 25 sons. He has captured Tamora, queen of the Goths, her sons and a mysterious Moor named Aaron. In obedience to his gods, he sacrifices one of Tamora’s sons and sets off a bloody, obsessive revenge-seeking feud with the calculating woman that concludes with the death of (spoiler alert!) just about everyone who has graced the stage.
Once again, Matt Wallace has cast some of the best actors in the city — many of whom are reprising their roles from last year. Jon Huffman as Titus is vile, brutal and utterly unforgivable — “it’s called acting,” sure, but wow, if you didn’t know Huffman is one of the nicest people in Louisville, it could make you wonder about the nature of his actual heart.
Jennifer Pennington reprises her role as Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Pennington’s Tamora is a sex-starved, power hungry, middle-age woman who is a monster. The vilification of women of a certain age who continue to seize their sexuality and power is a tale as old as time that, unfortunately, continues to this day.
But Pennington is utterly convincing as revenge incarnate (literally, at times).
Other standouts include Tom Luce as Titus’ brother, a “Goodfellas”-style fixer with a cooler head than most. Dathan Hooper Aaron is a huge presence on stage (in my notes, several places I wrote: “Dathan!” followed by a swear word), although at times he raced through his lines.
Newcomer Mollie Murk as the ravaged Lavinia made the character’s PTSD palpable and made the actions of those around her even more despicable for their callousness to her plight.
Jason Weber’s lighting and sound design deliver a totally cinematic experience, one that’s totally immersive. It’s not that you’re watching a horror movie so much as you are in one.
The play’s new home at the LVA in Portland is a good fit for the story’s industrial setting. Last year when it was set in a warehouse behind Play Dance Bar, Wallace indicated he wanted to move the play around.
Ironically, last year, I wrote, “I wanted more blood, much more blood. And maybe some more guts.” It wasn’t the blood and guts that got me. It was the sheer brutality of the acting. Clearly, there’s just no pleasing some people.
The play continues through Oct. 21. Tickets are $25 and are available online.
Also, in other Kentucky Shakespeare news: Wallace recently announced the 2018 summer lineup for the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival in Central Park: “A Comedy of Errors,” “Henry IV” and “Othello.”