In March of 2011, Prenzie Players embarked on a devilishly bloody adventure to stage one of Shakespeare’s most infamous works: Titus Andronicus. Filled with murder, rape, revenge (and a little cannibalism), the show presented a number of unique challenges that thrilled audiences for a nearly sold-out run.
Photo Credits: John Turner
Director says, ‘Titus Andronicus’ is Shakespeare’s ‘slasher film’
by David Burke
The blood and gore that Jake Walker enjoyed as a teenager wasn’t from the latest horror movie, cop drama or war flick.
It was “Titus Andronicus.”
Credited to William Shakespeare — and even called one of his least-respected plays by some scholars — it includes the brutal removal of heads, hands and tongues of characters, and that’s just for starters.
After being a fan of the work, which has been produced onscreen several times, Walker finally gets to direct “Titus” in a Prenzie Players production opening next weekend.
“I’ve been pushing for this show since I was in high school,” he said at the Stern Center in downtown Rock Island, where “Titus” will be performed.
“Now I’ve got my chance, and I’ve got a great cast and it’s fun to get the things that have been bouncing around in my skull for a decade now and put them onstage,” the 28-year-old added.
Written in the late 16th century, “Titus” was an early work by Shakespeare, although the authorship has been a point of contention.
“It was written early in his career, and the ultraviolent revenge tragedy was popular in his day,” Walker said. “This play was wildly popular when it came out. So this is his way of one-upping everyone else.”
It was a onetime foray, though, Walker said.
“It’s a brutally violent play,” he added. “A lot of Shakespeare has a lot of death, and a lot of people die in ‘Hamlet.’ It’s not rare in Shakespeare. But it’s the way people die.
“It’s the slasher film of the Elizabethan era.”
(Read a capsulized version of the plot on page C2.)
Catie Osborn, Walker’s girlfriend for the past 2 1/2 years, plays Titus’ daughter Lavinia, whose hands and tongue are cut so she cannot identify the men who raped her.
She had never heard of the show until Walker showed her a DVD of the play, which was directed by “Lion King” director Julie Taymor.
“It was a really great introduction working with Jake because Jake knows everything about the show, ever,” said Osborn, who met Walker as players in ComedySportz Quad-Cities, where they still perform.
“It’s been cool because that was my first exposure to it,” she added. “And I read the script and it was like, ‘This is so awesome — we should totally do it!’ ”
Both Osborn and Walker said she gets no preferential treatment because of their relationship and that having a girlfriend and boyfriend in rehearsals has been a “cast joke.”
She was even surprised to see that there was a performance of “Titus” off-Broadway while she was in New York, so she got to see it over the holidays. The couple even took a “day trip to Canada” to see a production.
Walker said it’s one of Shakespeare’s least-produced works and had never been performed in the Quad-Cities before, to the best of his knowledge.
With all of the blood in the show — five gallons of stage blood are being prepared for the six performances — Walker emphasizes that it is not the reason audiences should attend.
“There’s a very fine line to walk about this show because the play can very quickly become just about gore. Yes, violence is prevalent and something we can’t really run from, but there’s other things to it,” he said.
“I want to peel back the layer of the obvious violence. There’s lots to delve into: the struggle everyone goes through, the parental issues,” added Walker, who teaches instrumental music at Rockridge schools.
All of the cast knew what they were getting into even before auditions, Walker said.
“Are you ready for anything? OK. You’ll get everything thrown at you,” he told them.
Many suggestions from the cast helped fuel the show, he said.
“Everyone was so excited to be in these really dramatic, awful scenes because it’s something you don’t get to do very often. It’s been really cool doing that,” said Osborn, 24.
“Jake had wanted to do this story for so long, and I had heard his ideas and everything, and it’s cool watching them come to fruition because everyone gets a say,” she added.
‘Titus’ tough to watch but well-performed
by David Burke
As advertised, the blood was plentiful in the Prenzie Players’ “Titus Andronicus.”
But that’s not the only impression you’re left with once you walk out the door.
Above all of the gratuitous blood and a payoff in the final scene, the concept of which gives you the heebie-jeebies, it’s a multitude of excellent performances that will stick far longer than it takes to rinse stage blood out of the costumes.
That begins with Aaron E. Sullivan in the title role as the general of the Roman army. No one in Prenzie plays a regal, troubled leader better than Sullivan, nor does anyone do a better slow implosion.
As his daughter Lavinia, Catie Osborn has the look and mannerisms of a silent-movie damsel in distress. And she goes through more distress than imaginable as the victim of a rape who has her hands and tongue removed. Osborn’s silent expressions and mannerisms speak more than some actors can with a full script.
I had never noticed Cole McFarren in previous Prenzie shows (he was in “A Winter’s Tale”), but he impressed me as Bassianus, who is engaged to Lavinia. He and Osborn share tender moments in the pre-show that bring the only romance to the night.
It was good to see Jessica White back onstage as Tamora, the queen of the Goths, who teams with the eldest son of the Roman emperor. White glides from a dirty prisoner to a nicely dressed queen in a very short time offstage.
There also are fine performances from Prenzie regulars such as Bryan Woods, Andy Koski, Jeb Makula, David Cabassa and Angela Rathman.
But the biggest revelation of the night was Maggie Woolley as Saturnius, the new Roman emperor and the partner of White’s Tamora. Usually seen in the girly-girl roles, Woolley goes into a full macho swagger and attitude that’s only occasionally belied by a few strands of blonde hair hitting her face.
Jake Walker makes many smart directorial choices in the staging. “Titus” is performed in the far end of the former Hyman’s Furniture store, with audience members seated on the lengths of the area, with six different entry and exit points and action inches from the front row.
A rather large wooden trailer is used for everything from a prison to a dinner table, and actors emerge from either end of the stage to give the scenes some effective variety.
There always has to be some sort of incongruity to a Prenzie show, and in this play by Shakespeare, it includes a boombox and a gun. I had to question the use of the latter.
And considering that the audience is only inches away, having the actors project as if they were in a 1,000-seat theater may not have been the best move, what with the echoes off the empty walls.
“Titus” is gruesome, barbaric and difficult to watch at times. But the heart of the show, along with shreds of slapstick humor now and then, still beats strong.
Additional media coverage:
Local WVIK host Bruce Carter invited director Jake Walker and cast members Catie Osborn and Aaron Sullivan to speak on his show. Listen to the show here.
The Quad City Times ran a fantastic article on director Jake Walker’s unique vision for the show.
Cast member Catie Osborn also blogged about her experiences here.