SALT LAKE CITY — New World Shakespeare, under the direction of Blayne Wiley and Elise C. Hanson, and in association with the Utah Rape Recovery Center, have come together to produce one of Shakespeare’s earliest and most violent works to benefit and bring awareness to victims of sexual assault: Titus Andronicus.
With this understanding, the audience goer who may be curious to see this work in action, should be strongly advised that Wiley and Hanson do not sugarcoat any aspect of rape, sexuality, or violence in this horrific tale of tragedy. Throughout the production are moments of gore, violence, and sex that leave nothing to the imagination. In a sense, it was refreshing to see a Utah-based theatre group tackle heavy adult content in a real way, though at the same time, be advised that this production comes extremely close to having an “R” rating.
As the production began to unfold its violent and sexual nature, I felt impressed with the cast and crew for being willing to tell the story without holding back. In many instances throughout the evening, I was surprised by the depth of human suffering and emotion on stage. In particular, Elise C. Hanson in the role of Tamora was engaged in every moment and active in every scene. For instance, Hanson conveyed depth and anguish as she witnessed one of her sons murdered in the streets of Rome before the council of Andronicus and others. Even though Tamora may be considered the “villain” in this piece, I couldn’t help but feel pity for her as she sobbed in pain.
Another standout performance was from Hannah Schweinfurth as Demetrius. Schweinfurth gave an adequate amount of lust and madness in her portrayal of the sick and twisted Demetrius. The character she had created was engrossing to watch because Demetrius behaved and reacted honestly. With a sickening laugh or deep groan Schweinfurth held my eye and commanded attention on stage. With the help of her brother sidekick Chiron (played by Katlin Kirby), their voracious lust to take from Lavania “her spotless chastity” was disgustingly believable and horrifying.
Jon Turner played the titular character with a sense of maturity and boldness. While once hailed as the great defeater of the Goths, Andronicus slowly begins a painful descent into madness as his desire to revenge the assault of his daughter overtakes him. Turner was adept at playing the soon-returned-war-hero, but was even better as the overcome-with-grief father. Turner had a range of emotion that spanned from filling the space with his voice, to a subtle whisper or turn of the head. This was most notable in the final act when Andronicus fulfills his desire for sweet revenge by feeding Tamora the remains of her sons.
Boasting a cast of over 24, there is simply not enough time or space to mention every character or actor. But as an ensemble, the cast worked beautifully well together as they kept the production progressing from scene to scene. As a whole, the cast had a strong connection to the cast and source material. They listened to each other and stayed in the moment. This cohesiveness was most memorable in the larger scenes toward the beginning, middle, and end of the production. Their dedication to react honestly and responsively as the Tamora was named queen or when Chiron and Demetrius were slaughtered kept the show feeling fresh and alive.
The lighting design by David Bruner and set design by Dustin Kennedy and Blayne Wiley were effective enough without being either distracting or overbearing. Simple changes in light colors or slight movement of set pieces gave just the right amount of information to help move the story along, rather than to take from it. The sound design by Colleen Weathers employed over 30 contemporary and classic songs throughout the production. While this set the mood during the pre-show, intermission, and post-show, I found it sometimes too distracting during the performance as the music would feel out of place or simply too loud.
In all, New World Shakespeare has a surprisingly effective and mature show on their hands. It’s a pity so few were in attendance when I saw it, because the cast of Titus Andronicus gave it their all. If you’re looking for a production that doesn’t shy away from adult themes, and you wish to help benefit the Utah Rape Recovery Center, then please do yourself a favor and see this memorable Titus Andronicus before it closes.