Staging a Bloody Little Benefit at Little Theatre
The logistics of a death scene can make or break that most precious of all theatrical ingredients — the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
Even in a highly-stylized Shakespearean production, like this weekend’s run of Titus Andronicus staged by Justin John Costello as a benefit for The Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre, the audience has to believe that a snap of the neck or dagger to the gut is real, at least within the reality of the play.
Citing a background in horror and a reputation for stage blood baths at Fordham that carries on years after graduation, the director took a break during an all-day rehearsal Sunday to trace the genesis of the project.
Clad in a workshirt reading “County Coroner,” Costello recalled he had not been back in the area long after a spell in New York City when he went to see Little Theatre’s 2011 production of Into the Woods. It was only a couple of weeks after flooding devastated the region and despite postponing the show, box office suffered. Volunteers took up an additional collection to help cover the play’s costs.
“(Little Theatre) is the oldest, longest running theatre in the community,” he said. “And things are expensive… I’ve always done charity and I thought, I’m here, let me see if we can work together.”
Despite apparent difficulty, Costello chose Titus Andronicus because it’s royalty free and not as frequently produced as some of the Bard’s more saccharine works, i.e. Romeo and Juliet.
“I thought it would be really cool to do this show in an election year. It deals with the outcome of an election, and it opens with them returning— after ten years specifically— of war with the Goths. And it’s literally been 10 years and we’re done in Iraq and these soldiers are returning home.”
The director warns those unfamiliar with the tragedy that Titus is Shakespeare’s most violent work, in keeping with the bloody revenge plays that were all the rage in the 16th century. Still, he hopes that won’t turn anyone away.
Set during the fall of Rome, the play’s savagery is fueled by the barbaric Visigoths — precursors of the Vikings — taken prisoner in war by noble soldier Titus Andronicus. Its most horrific extreme is undoubtedly the rape and mutilation of Titus’ daughter Lavinia, left alive with twigs for hands and her tongue cut out.
Debating the details of a quick sequence of slaughters — the mad-with-grief Titus kills Goth queen Tamora and is then promptly killed by (her husband) the Emperor Saturninus, who is in turn killed by Titus’ son Lucius — there are pleas from the cast for simplicity and reminders toward safety.
Anyone who’s been involved in so much as the periphery of a theatrical production knows the final “hell week” before a play opens is spiked with exhaustion, anxiety, and volatile emotions. Shouldered with enormous responsibility for his lion’s share of lines alone as Titus, actor Sam Troy momentarily stumbled upon switching gears into the atypical quiet of Act Two at Sunday’s rehearsal.
“Can we start this damn thing over?” he asked, after calling for line repeatedly. The text refreshed in his head, he found himself uncertain with the blocking. “Am I supposed to be sitting here?” he asked. Suggesting a good spot in the script for Troy to sit, Costello reassured the actor. “It’s OK. Just breathe.”
Within moments, the scene had found its groove before rolling to a stop.
“And now we go into the orgy,” Costello joked, jumping up. “Well, really, that’s what happens, but we have to do it PG,” he said, grinning.