“Titus” tales

Two things have piqued my interest in Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.” A conversation my daughter Lizabeth had with a friend who shared that the upcoming production by Southwest Shakespeare Company would feature a very “stylized” feel. And the play’s inclusion in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 season.

During the past year, we’ve seen Shakespeare’s “Richard III” performed by both the Southwest Shakespeare Company and the Utah Shakespeare Festival — and found the local production to be bloodier by far in all sorts of ways. So I was intrigued to learn that their “Titus Andronicus” will actually be a bloodless affair.

“Titus Andronicus” is widely regarded as Shakespeare’s bloodiest work. It’s one of his earliest plays, popular in its day when “revenge plays” were all the rage, but less so nowadays. Unlike some of Shakespeare’s other works, “Titus Andronicus” isn’t grounded in historical events.

“Titus Andronicus” is a purely fictional general who returns triumpantly from battle. He refuses when folks want to make him emperor of Rome, so one of the late emperor’s sons gets the gig. But Saturninus is a terrible ruler, and things go downhill in a hurry.

Randy Messersmith, who co-founded the Southwest Shakespeare Company and now heads the theater department at Scottsdale Community College, performs the role of “Titus” in the show’s Sept 8-24 run at Mesa Arts Center.

He took the gig after chatting with longtime colleague and friend David Barker (best known to some for his fight scene choreography) about his concept for the work. Barker is directing this production of “Titus Andronicus.”

“David’s concept,” says Messersmith, “was no set, no costumes.” Or maybe simple costumes like sheaths. “All the violence,” shares Messersmith, “is ritualized or stylized.”

“There’s a physical, non-realistic nature to the material at times,” says Messersmith. It’s been cut to 90 minutes, making it “a fast, lean and mean machine.” It’s being performed in the Farnsworth “black box” theater, which seats just 99 people, making the experience especially intimate and intense.

“The escalation of violence comes much more quickly,” says Messersmith. So does the lack of liquid blood mean the work is suitable for younger audiences? Messersmith notes that much of the violence is psychological, so I doubt that most parents will see the appeal. Messersmith says the work is not appropriate for those younger than 13 (and some parents may want their children to be even older to see such works).

“Our culture is so used to violence.” reflects Messersmith. “So if it’s not realistic it holds no interest to young people.” Messersmith suspects that “the stylized violence would be really odd for them.”

Still, Messersmith says it’s “a great lesson for parents to educate kids about a theatrical way to approach storytelling.” It is indeed possible to explore conflict and character in the absence of car chases and machine gun battles.

“It’s visceral,” says Messersmith. “There’s no gore, no shock.” Experiencing this take on “Titus” is akin to watching a psychological thriller.

“In a weird way,” muses Messersmith, “it’s like a video game without any violence.”

— Lynn

Note: Learn more at www.swshakespeare.org. Visit www.sc.maricopa.edu for information about the Oct 20-29 Scottsdale Community College production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” directed by Messersmith. “Midsummer” beats mayhem if you’re looking for ways to introduce children to Shakespeare’s works.

Coming up: Notes from a Shakespeare novice, “Titus” — Take 2

Update: Read the “Stage Mom” review of “Titus Andronicus” at https://rakstagemom.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/recipe-for-revenge/

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