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Shakespeare's First Tragedy, "Titus Andronicus," Performed at the Art Museum

(Poster design courtesy Actors Theatre of Missouri)

Springfield Shakespeare at the Columns, in partnership with Actors Theatre of Missouri, Rice Theatricals, and The Dangerous Playground, presents William Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" in the auditorium at the Springfield Art Museum, 1111 E. Brookside Drive adjacent to Phelps Grove Park.  This is a rare opportunity for local theatergoers to see an early, lesser-known Shakespeare work—his first tragic play, in fact.

Bryant Turnage directs the production, which will offer six FREE performances this weekend and next. Being his first tragedy, says Turnage, “you can see Shakespeare cutting his teeth. We decided to set it post-World War One, because the play itself is about a triumphant general returning to Rome and dealing with the aftermath of a horrible war, the loss of a generation of people, and how he deals with the political in-fighting of who is going to take over the Emperorship (of Rome), what the conquered people think of that, and how it reflects on him, his honor and his family. So it blends in well with the World War One mentality—you had the aristocracy commanding what was actually the common people who were fighting.” “Titus Andronicus” has been described as Shakespeare’s most “savage” plays.  Turnage and his cast agree.  “It’s not subtle! The most subtle thing about it for us is probably the World War One theme, which is, ‘Hey, there are a couple of nice, beautiful costumes.’ But no, it’s very brutal.” “Everybody’s mean,” says Jeff Carney, who plays the title role in his first non-operatic Shakespearean dramatic role.

Carney calls it “one of the easiest plays” in the Shakespeare canon in terms of its immediate visceral impact on an audience, and their ability to understand and to follow the plot—even in the face of the Bard’s flowery, late 16th-century language.  “It’s not easy to perform—it’s been a challenge for me--but for the audience to actually understand what the words mean.  It’s so concise.”

Titus could well be considered something of a control freak.  Jeff Carney says that “all Titus wants is just to be obeyed, and everything to go as it’s supposed to.  And suddenly, everybody in his life is crazy!” Bryant Turnage and Jonna Volz (who plays Tamora, Queen of the barbarian Goths) laugh at that description.  “It’s everyone else’s fault, right?” says Turnage.

Carney’s brother, writer/actor Ben Carney (who performed his autobiographical piece “Everybody Dies” in the inaugural Missouri Solo Play Festival in 2016), had an interesting reaction when Jeff told him he was going to do this play. “He just looked at me and said, ‘Titus effing Andronicus?? Well... good luck!”

Jonna Volz’s character, Tamora, Queen of the Goths, is a Roman captive in the war, goes on to become Empress of Rome. “It’s funny that (Jeff) says that we’re all crazy, because that’s my (Tamora’s) perspective coming in as a captured queen—and he’s, like, killing his own kids, and I’m just like ‘what’s going on here?!’”  Tamora has to fear for her own life, “until the very interesting character Saturninus [eldest son of the deceased Emperor of Rome, and thus a leading candidate for the job] decides, just to spite Titus, to make (Tamora) his new Empress.  One second her son’s being slaughtered and she’s a captive, and the next second she’s set free, and then she’s the Empress of Rome.  It’s quite an emotional roller coaster in the first 30 minutes!”

Titus himself, being the conquering hero, is definitely in the running for Roman Emperor; Jeff Carney likens him to Dwight Eisenhower in that regard (or maybe Douglas MacArthur?) “Titus just wants what’s best,” says Carney with more than a touch of irony.  But as Jonna Volz notes, Titus appoints Saturninus to be the new Emperor. “It’s on him to decide.  He doesn’t want (the job)... why he chooses Saturninus, I don’t know. But it works out well for me!” “Titus has a strange sense of loyalty,” says Volz.  “It’s like he’s kind of losing his mind, which is what Tamora is banking on, because she’s even referred to in the text as like a Trojan horse. She’s let in by Saturninus”—who proceeds to make her his new Empress, as we’ve already said.

Volz, like Carney, finds her role a major challenge. “It’s very challenging just trying to get into (Tamora’s) head and justify (her)... (she) makes some very hard decisions, and (is) motivated by revenge. She is a deceiver”—almost a double agent. “For me it was very important to establish from the very beginning, in the very first scene, her ‘why’”—her motivations.  “Why in the world would she do this? What IS your motivation, girl? She’s not just crazy.  No, there’s a reason why: her people being killed, her son being slaughtered.  All of these things put her on a course to get in there and... she has her own agenda.”

Director Bryant Turnage has some two dozen cast and crew members for “Titus Andronicus,” including “a couple of new people—new to Shakespeare, and new to acting in general—that have just stepped up and performed amazingly. I have been blessed with a very talented cast and crew that have given their all—blood, sweat, tears, to this production.  And it hasn’t been easy.  But they have come through beautifully.  For how brutal it is, it is a beautiful production, seeing it all come together.”

Admission is free; performances are Fridays and Saturdays January 19 and 20, and the 26th and 27th, at 7:30pm and Sundays January 21st and 28 at 2:00pm, all in the Springfield Art Museum Auditorium.  For more information visit Actors Theatre of Missouri's Facebook page.

Randy Stewart joined the full-time KSMU staff in June 1978 after working part-time as a student announcer/producer for two years. His job has evolved from Music Director in the early days to encompassing production of a wide range of arts-related programming and features for KSMU, including the online and Friday morning Arts News. Stewart assists volunteer producers John Darkhorse (Route 66 Blues Express), Lee Worman (The Gold Ring), and Emily Higgins (The Mulberry Tree) with the production of their programs. He's also become the de facto "Voice of KSMU" in recent years due to the many hours per day he’s heard doing local station breaks. Stewart’s record of service on behalf of the Springfield arts community earned him the Springfield Regional Arts Council's Ozzie Award in 2006.