This show requires a lot of hand-to-hand combat and considerably more blood than Romeo & Juliet. It was all done with ghastly if over-the-top realism. The plot is both simple and ridiculous by contemporary standards: Titus (Nick Rose) is a successful general who turns down the chance to become emperor. Things go bad for him and his family when his prisoner Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Miranda McGee in a showy, sexy role), gets hitched to the emperor Saturninus (played as a foppish, preening fool by Justin McComb). She wreaks some vengeance on Titus’s offspring, masterminded by her scheming lover Aaron (Darnell Benjamin) who steers her fawning, selfish sons Chiron (Travis Emery) and Demetrius (Zach Schute) to some vile acts. After gruesome violence on Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Maggie Lou Rader), a grief-crazed Titus figures out some even more grotesque ways to fight back.
This is all spelled out in the script and played out on CSC’s stage with a lot of gore and stage blood — decapitated heads and severed hands — for instance, and extended to the brink of insanity lengths in the second half with Titus’s missing left hand replaced by a metal forearm that accommodates various implements from a fork to a corkscrew to a set of mechanical knife blades (like the electric knife I use to carve the Thanksgiving turkey). You can be assured these are used for violent purposes, and Nick Rose, a CSC veteran (in fact, one of its founders), revels in Titus’s madness — with some manic behavior, including bemoaning the “murder” of a fly in a blackly humorous moment. Rose is having a ball with this juicy role.
Director Jeremy Dubin has provided a different sort of filter for this interpretation of Titus Andronicus, that of the sci-fi genre of “Steampunk,” which presumes that the Victorian ingenuity of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells in the 19th century extended its steam-driven, mechanical technology prevailed in the 20th and 21st centuries. Accordingly, costumes are a curious, colorful mishmash of Victorian styles — cutaway coats, vests, goggles, belts and bustiers — and six video monitors around the theater display show cards offering the gist of scenes with quaint, tongue-in-cheek summaries. Each act began with n actor attaching a hand crank to a gear at stage right to wind up the mechanism of the show. Similarly, when certain offstage action needed to be represented, a servant bearing a kind of magic lantern projector came on to reveal a scene, which the audience saw on the monitors. (The device was clever; I wish it had been more fully and frequently integrated into the action.)
Titus Andronicus is not a great play, but Cincy Shakes — and especially actors Nick Rose, Miranda McGee, Darnell Benjamin and Maggie Lou Rader — make this production great fun to watch, providing you’re not too squeamish. It is, after all, a bloody mess, intentionally so and perfect for the thrill-seekers of late October.
TITUS ANDRONICUS, presented by the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, runs through Nov. 11.