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VIOLENT INTRIGUE: Shakespeare’s first tragedy gets set in post-apocalyptic Rome

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Browncoat opens a futuristic ‘Titus Andronicus’ on Thursday.

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Violence. It’s an ongoing, burdensome reality of society. And it has been since the beginning of time.

GENDER BENDER: Instead of playing Tamora’s sons in “Titus Andronicus,” director Josh Bailey has cast the roles as daughters.

In the 16th century, William Shakespeare wrote his first tragedy, “Titus Andronicus,” a bloody gore fest set at the end of the Roman Empire. The story follows Roman general Titus, who’s embroiled in a slew of misfortunes and revenge with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Murder, cannibalism, rape, insanity … it’s all there in a multitude of hits. In fact, “Titus Andronicus” was so intense upon its release, it was banned in Victorian England.

“Thematically, it seems completely relevant—as most Shakespeare tends to be—to modern times,” says Josh Bailey, who will direct the play for Browncoat Pub and Theatre. The show opens this week.

“There are issues of political intrigue and power, which make it akin to ‘House of Cards,’” Bailey continues. “There are plans of murder and revenge that make it feel like ‘Game of Thrones.’ There are issues of racism and the view of the outsiders in society, which feels immediate and important in this day just as much as any. The play addresses society’s obsession with violence and its degradation, which seem to go hand in hand with a country where the largest Pay-Per-View shows are UFC fights.”

This will be Bailey’s first time directing on the Wilmington theatre scene, though he last starred in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” at Red Barn over the summer. He has taken the Bard’s work and transformed it from Ancient Rome to a future Rome, set after an apocalypse. However, Bailey says time and place won’t affect the central theme, which draws on the base emotions of humanity.

“In this way, Rome is a civilization that is surviving and thriving during the difficult times after the apocalypse, and the Goths, the outsiders, are struggling to survive the best way they can,” Bailey explains. “This highlights the central aspect of the play: Civilization is just as brutal as the wild. The Romans are no better than the Goths when it comes to their joy of killing and bloodshed, even though they imagine they are.”

Playing the title role will be veteran actor J.R. Rodriguez. Bailey has been wowed by Rodriguez’s vast energy and passion. “It’s amazing to see what he brings each day, whether a new emotional range that wasn’t present before, or a layer to Titus I hadn’t considered,” Bailey tells.

Playing Titus’ nemesis, Tamora, will be Lily Nicole, who just completed the show “She Kills Monsters” at Browncoat in one of the lead roles, Vera. Replacing the actress’ normal, loving smile is a stone-cold woman of authority, just looking to seek revenge for the slaying of her son. Nicole has found the strength of her character most inspiring, if not challenging.

“Tamora brings a carnal animalistic instinct of survival,” Nicole tells. “At all costs, she knows how to survive. That untamed energy finds its way under everyone’s skin.”

Like most Shakespeare, the text is open, always, to intrepretation. Nicole and Bailey have spoken at length how, with “one pivotal action not taking place very early on, the whole thing would ring with a much different tone,” according to the actress. “It’s one scene away from being a comedy.”

A play heavy with male roles, Bailey has cast some of them as females. Specifically, he has changed Tamora’s sons, Demetrius and Chiron, into daughters instead. Olivia Arokiasamy will play Chira and Meredith Stanton will take on Demetria.

“The gender of a role doesn’t matter unless it actually matters,” Bailey says. “There’s nothing that prevents any character in this play from being cast as the opposite gender—except for Saturninus, Tamora and Aaron, because a biological baby is involved. I went in to find the best actors to fill the role, and here they happened to be female.”

Bailey cast Ron Hasson as Marcus Andronicus, Titus’ brother and Roman Tribune of the People. Though he doesn’t fight in the war, Bailey says Hasson “fights for every line and every moment onstage with an infectious attitude.”

A particular scene between Ron and Lavinia, played by Arianna Tysinger, will bring the audience to tears, says Tysinger. “Lavinia is an incredibly difficult role for an actress,” she continues. Playing Titus’ only daughter means also being mute. Lavinia is brutally raped and disfigured in the production. “Arianna does an amazing job of communicating emotion and ‘speaking’ with her body and face that is moving,” Bailey tells. 

Nick Reed will play Roman emperor Saturninus with fits of rage that will intensify the show. Darius Bego will bring to life the director’s favorite role, Aaron, Tamora’s lover. Bailey appreciates the transformation of Aaron’s character and how his story arc changes in the show.

“He is a sign of what happens when society judges people purely on the color of their skin, and puts them in a place of subservience or villainhood; then, they are surprised at what they’ve created,” Bailey explains. “He’s one of the early great villains in Shakespearean history, and in him you can see the foundations that lay Iago and even Macbeth. But I always read him differently, almost like Othello.”

Other cast members include Andrew Liguori as Bassianus, Hal Cosec as Lucius, James Wojcik as Quintus, Paul Homick as Mutius, and Shawn Sproatt as Alarba/Nurse.

Set design is being constructed by Richard Blaylock. Both flat stages and the entire volume of Browncoat’s space will be transformed to look like red and white marble. There will be a movable staircase for actors to access all areas, too. “I think there is a powerful moment when someone is 6 feet above the audience’s head at the front of the stage!” Bailey tells.

Costuming will be a mix of ancient Rome with modern, futuristic garb to help indicate post-apocalyptic Rome. Bailey wants the worn, ragged looks to be indicative of a time where people are made to survive against struggles and only with what they have. Jon Armke and Beth Corvino have helped mold the aesthetic of the play.

“Lighting is simple and stark, but the words on the page are what matter,” Bailey continues. “‘Titus’ is an underperformed work. It definitely shows [Shakespeare’s] youth, because it’s not as polished as later works like ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Macbeth.’ I think that’s what makes it special. It’s a young writer’s first attempt at a crowd-pleaser, so it’s rough and violent and people talk too much, but it’s exciting, too. It’s edgy in a way that the cleaner productions of his later life weren’t, and that makes it special.”

Titus Andronicus
October 8-11, 15-18, and 22-25
Thursday-Saturdays, 8 p.m.
Sundays, 5 p.m.
Browncoat Pub and Theatre
111 Grace Street
Tickets: $10-$20

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