Listen, I’m a naturally squeamish person. A bubble of blood makes me wince. I have to leave the room at the sight of full-on gore, or spend the duration of the scene whimpering with my face in my hands. A staged throat slitting ten feet from my seat did not sound like my idea of fun. I have an undying love for Kentucky Shakespeare, though, and a weakness for a good theme well-executed. Shakespeare’s bloodiest play performed in a warehouse in Butchertown three nights before Halloween? That was an event I couldn’t miss. My weak stomach would just have to deal with it.
In addition to being the Elizabethan equivalent of a slasher flick, Titus Andronicus was also Shakespeare’s first tragedy, written while he was still a newbie playwright. In the late 16th century, revenge tragedies were all the rage, so Shakespeare was kind of like a fledgling YA author writing a dystopia novel but deciding to make it the most dystopia. When it first opened, Titus was a hit. It was only in the centuries that followed, when writers and theatre-goers alike became more prudish, that Titus became infamous for the same thing that made it famous–excessive gore and violence. 18th and 19th century critics doubted that a genius like Shakespeare could have written such a disgusting mess of a play, feeding the Shakespeare ghostwriter conspiracy theories. Happily for Titus, we live in a world that is fascinated by violence and horror once again, and those bloody enemies, Titus and Tamora, can return again, this time dressed up as the heads of feuding organized crime families.
October 28 might not have been the best night to attend, since it was also the night that the neighboring Copper & Kings held a Pittsburgh Whiskey & Fine Spirits Festival and hat few parking spaces in the neighborhood were filled up. But October 28 is my dad’s birthday, so we grumble a bit and finally parked about a five minute walking distance from Play, the club that owns the warehouse. The trademark Butchertown smell and the barbed wire fence with a “no trespassing” sign that serves as the gate to the theatre heightens the dark, scary tension of the play. The fact that the venue for this production shares a roof with an active nightclub only slightly detracts from the ambiance. There’s a fun process involved in picking up your ticket at will call. I won’t spoil it for you, in case you have the chance to experience it yourself, but while you’re waiting outside, don’t try to find your way to the theatre yourself. Pay attention to everyone around you. By the time we were inside, I even wonder if the couple in the front row supposedly saving the rest of their row for friends are part of the show. (They aren’t; they just have really late friends.)
Even the tickets come in the form of matchbooks, with actual matches. Look!
As the lights of the room go dim, a light comes on over the loft, revealing Titus (Jon Huffman), in a shirt drenched with blood, washing his hands. He stares out, the loft goes black again, and the show begins. In the first scene, the Romans return from battle with Goth hostages and two body bags for their own dead. As payment for the Romans killed, Titus and his sons kill the eldest son of the Goth queen Tamora (Jennifer Pennington), heedless to her pleas for mercy. As they take him off-stage to do the bloody deed, Tamora promises her remaining family that they will have revenge.
After all this is done, the Romans elect a new emperor–Saturninus (Neill Robertson), according to Titus’s recommendation. Saturninus then, with the approval of Titus, takes Lavinia (Katherine Martin) to be his future empress, and sets the Goths free as a sign of goodwill. (At which point, I lean over and whispered to Dad, “That was a bad idea.” Neither of us have ever read or seen Titus Andronicus before, but come on, we know how Shakespeare works.) There’s just one problem–Lavinia is already betrothed to Saturninus’ brother, Bassianus (Kyle Ware). Bassianus and Lavinia make off together in protest. Titus and his sons chase after him, but not before Saturninus finds out and angrily announces something to the effect of, “Fine, then I’ll just marry Tamora!” As you might imagine, things go a little haywire for Titus and his family from there.
I’m able to enjoy this show, but there are definitely some points that tried my weak stomach. As a caution to my fellow squeamish theatre-goers, here’s a brief overview of what you can expect: out of fourteen deaths, nine happen on stage; eyeballs (removed from eye sockets); chopped off hands; cut out tongues; throat slitting; rape. In perhaps the most disturbing scene, Lavinia stumbles across the stage, bloody, clothes torn, hands and tongue gone, having just been raped, while her attackers–Chiron (Jon Becraft) and Demetrius (Jon Patrick O’Brien)– follow her, filming her on their phones. If you can handle that scene, you can probably handle the rest of the show, but it is a lot to handle.
I suppose for us squeamish folks, it’s lucky that the seating is set up in such a way that depending on where you sit, there are scenes you just miss completely. From the far left side of the room, I’m unable to see the moment when Aaron chops off Titus’ hand, and I’m sure there were scenes that happen near me that people in the center or the far right couldn’t see. While part of me is relieved, most of me likes to see the whole show, whether comfortable or not. There are also a few distracting moments in the second act when the sounds from the club bleeds through to our room and takes me out of the scene. (I find out later they were doing a screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show for charity, so I can’t be too mad.) The acoustics of the venue are spotty, though most of the actors projected clearly enough to cover it. In some of the busier scenes, I feel a little lost, but I get the gist of what was happening. The minor inconveniences are unfortunate, but overall, the venue is one of the best parts of the show: a living, breathing character in itself. I don’t trust that warehouse or the dusty air around me any more than I trust anyone on stage. I’m that saturated in the experience.
Speaking of stand-out performances, my immediate favorite is Katherine Martin for taking a character who has little to no agency and turning her into a fully actualized person. She expresses her disgust with the prospect of a marriage to Saturninus through her facial expressions and the delivery of her lines. She goes willingly with Bassianus. After her rape and the death of her brothers, she revels in the prospect of revenge almost as much as her father. She’s played with strong emotions and a willful spirit, which makes her fate all the more painful to watch. Jon Huffman, of course, does an excellent job as Titus, carefully handling his descent into madness while never losing his craftiness. I also enjoy seeing Neill Robertson in a role unlike any that I’ve seen him play before. I’ve seen his comic side as Autolycus in Winter’s Tale, and even a darker side when he played Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. But while hot-headed and spiteful like Tybalt, Saturninus still offered more layers and range, which Robertson fills in terrifically. And a shout-out has to be given to stage manager Anna Neikirk and the crew, who can be seen working like the wind before the show and during intermission.
Titus Andronicus in Butchertown has five more performances before the end of the run, with tickets going for $20. Tonight has sold out, but there’s a 3:00 matinee and a 7:30 showing on Sunday and Monday. During intermission, artistic director Matt Wallace mentioned, “If we do this next year…” so who knows? If you miss it this weekend, keep an eye out next year. Personally, I think this could be the start of a new Halloween tradition.