Shelby Lea Sours as Tamora and Brian Moors as Titus in “Titus… (Submitted photo )
If the crime rate spikes in Howard County, blame Shakespeare. The Bard's most violent play, "Titus Andronicus," is being staged by the Laurel-based theater company Rude Mechanicals at the Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City.
This production follows close on the bloody heels of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's outdoor staging of the same play at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in 2010.
Considering that "Titus Andronicus" is rarely staged anywhere, it's really unusual that local audiences have had two opportunities to be appalled by a play with such a high body count. Many characters are killed in this war-themed drama set in ancient Rome, including a couple of beheadings. Some survivors have their hands cut off and there's even a tongue cut out.
If Shakespeare plays came with movie-style ratings attached, "Titus Andronicus" would merit an "R" for sadistic violence. It's not one of his more psychologically probing plays, but the revenge-driven plot does grab your attention.
The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's outdoor production took the form of an historical pageant unfolding around the stabilized ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute high above Ellicott City. That building's classical columns served as an imposing backdrop for toga-clad aristocrats plotting murder.
The smaller-scale Rude Mechanicals' production does not have a set design other than a small platform placed in the middle of the arts center's compact stage. There aren't many props other than the weapons and, yes, a few decapitated heads and severed hands.
Seeing the awful action at close quarters indoors does foster a sense of claustrophobic immediacy. The Rude Mechanicals' production, directed by Thomas L. McGrath, also goes for immediacy by costuming its characters in modern clothes and incorporating contemporary pop music in the recorded sound mix.
If the Rude Mechanicals' hipper version suffers by comparison, it's because this briskly paced staging does a better job with action than it does with feeling. Although the story's non-stop violence definitely makes an impression, the cast is inconsistent in its ability to convey the emotional consequences of these atrocities.
Fortunately, Brian Moors' steady performance as the title character more or less anchors this unsteady production. He's quite convincing as the gray-bearded Roman general Titus Andronicus, who has just returned to Rome from a war with the Goths. When Titus confers with his rather somber brother Marcus, however, their conversation is impaired by Michael Galizia's uneven performance as Marcus. Although Galizia looks right for this grizzled role, he needs to articulate his words more clearly in some scenes.
More consistently engaging are Titus Andronicus' tender conversations with his daughter Lavinia, because actor Jacqueline Chenault embodies this young woman's vulnerability.
Titus, who is dressed in a military medal-adorned uniform, has come to Rome with several Goth soldiers he captured in battle. These defeated Goth warriors are dressed in blue jeans and skull-embossed T-shirts suitable for Goths in the rock music sense of that term.
Although the captured Goth Queen, Tamora (Shelby Sours), wears a military uniform, Tamora's young adult sons, Demetrius (Patrick Mullan) and Chiron (Scott Campbell), look like they're dressed for a rock concert. These three actors give angry performances that occasionally verge on overstatement.
As for the political scene in the winning city, the Roman emperor, Saturninus (Donald R. Cook), is so vain that he probably thinks this play is about him. He and Titus are rivals for power.
One of the most devious complications is when Tamora agrees to marry Saturninus. Love is not her motive, because she wants to get close to him in order to facilitate her plans for revenge.
Tamora saves her affection for her secret lover, Aaron (Kyle McGruther). Strutting about in a long black leather coat, the perpetually conniving Aaron says: "Blood and revenge are hammering in my head." Even a headache is violent in this play.
"Titus Andronicus" has its remaining performances May 4, 5, 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. at the Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. Tickets are $15, $12 for students and seniors. Go to http://www.rudemechanicals.com/titus.