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The best way to describe “Titus Andronicus,” Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, is this: In the span of two hours, you have 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. For starters. It’s a bloody, bloody damn play. The front row is a “splash zone” like they have at Shamu shows but for blood.

If it sounds like there’s not much room for plot among all this slaughter, it’s true. But it’s really OK. Kentucky Shakespeare‘s editor Greg Maupin seemed to cut the play for maximum action and minimum exposition (confession: I’ve never read the play nor seen it before). Frankly, the plot is pretty convoluted. I did not regret reading a summary before I attended.

Director Matt Wallace’s “Titus” is set in a modern-ish world in an industrial and menacing space and pits a “Sopranos”-style family against a family of literal modern “Goths.” (Brilliant! With light sticks and piercings and everything! I loved it!)

Titus is a respected general in the Roman army returning to Rome after defeating the Goths. He’s lost a bunch of his sons in battle, but he still has some left and a daughter, Lavinia. Titus has brought back with him Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and her two rabid sons and a wily (you don’t know how wily) Moor named Aaron as prisoners.

The people want Titus to be emperor, but he’s ready to sit down and kick back on his heels for a while. So he decides the dead emperor’s son, Saturninus, should be emperor instead and that he should marry Lavinia.

But it turns out Lavinia is promised to Saturninus’ brother, Bassianus, so they run away together. Titus stabs one of his sons for trying to prevent him from following them, and Saturninus decides to marry the Goth queen instead. People get very angry, lots of people suffer and die.

There is so much side-switching and back-stabbing (both literal and figurative) that to unwind it all would sound like calling plays during a football game.

But you’re not going to go see this play for the plot. You’re going to see this play because it’s exciting, fun, shocking and different. You’re going to see this play for the beautiful words, the fine talent and all the blood.

This is Kentucky Shakespeare’s first fall play in its 56-year history and a rare indoor play in which you pay for tickets. It’s held in a warehouse behind Play Dance Bar in Butchertown that is skin-pricklingly creepy even before starts thanks to plastic tarps and chains all over, the belching fog machine, the strange noises all around. It starts before you even enter the building; two members of Kentucky Shakespeare’s veterans’ acting program are stationed outside to act as “toughs.” (I would have loved if Wallace had extended the immersive part of the experience beyond that.)

One of the superstars of the show is Jason Weber, for his light and sound design; he managed to keep the hairs on the back of my neck at attention for pretty much the whole play.

Zachary Burrell, Jon Huffman and Katherine Martin | Photo by Brian Owen
Zachary Burrell, Jon Huffman and Katherine Martin | Photo by Brian Owen

Jon Huffman as Titus is extraordinary. Huffman has a tremendous acting resumé and has worked all over the country. The fact that he’s here in Louisville is an absolute blessing to the theater community (he also co-owns Vault 1031, a venue and arts community in Old Louisville, with his wife, Barbara Cullen).

His Titus is equally powerful in rage, in love and in quasi-madness. It was so refreshing to see a character feign madness so believably and not chew the scenery to get a point across. Like Tony Soprano, Huffman’s Titus a loathsome guy, but he moves you nonetheless and you feel kind of gross for feeling that way.

His foil, Neill Robertson’s Saturninus, is even more awful. Robertson played him with sullen, spoiled club-kid manic-ness, and I don’t think there’s anyone else in the Louisville theater community who could have pulled it off more convincingly. That his age was on par with his empress Tamora’s sons, amped up the perversion of his maternal/sexual relationship with her.

Katherine Martin played Lavinia, whose transformation after the unspeakable happens to her was staggeringly convincing. When she first reveals herself to Marcus, who is Pauly Walnuts to her father’s Tony, the interaction is so genuine and her air of desecration to palpable, I choked up a bit.

Speaking of Marcus, where did actor Tom Luce come from? He was fantastic: stoic, brave, menacing, the voice of reason. He has an incredible energy onstage and my eyes were constantly drawn to him. I hope Wallace can keep him around; he has 28 credits on his IMDB page.

It’s a bloody October in the theater world in Louisville. We have the perennially wonderful jump-scares and blood-sucking of “Dracula,” Les Waters’ brutal battle-bloody “Macbeth” and now “Titus,” rated R, 17+ (yes, really). These super-high-quality horror plays always make me wonder why people go to haunted house-style attractions instead of packing these plays.

Honestly, I am not a fan of horror movies, and I would sooner eat a live cockroach than subject myself to one of those high-contact haunted attractions, but horror theater really intrigues me. It’s a combination of the shock, the mechanics of it all and the fun of feeling like you’re seeing something you shouldn’t, in person.

It’s with that spirit that I offer the only critique I feel worth noting: I wanted more blood, much more blood. And maybe some more guts.

The play runs Oct. 13-16, 20-23 and 27-31. Most shows start at 7:30 p.m., but on Oct. 21 and 22, “Titus” will start at 6 p.m. due to a sudden event conflict with Play. Tickets are $20. Play is at 1101 E. Washington St. 



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