They warned us. And what a grim piece of storytelling “Titus Andronicus” really turned out to be.
But somehow I had prepared myself for more blood.
At Nebraska Shakespeare's second opening night Thursday in Elmwood Park, about 550 watched as nearly every character of any significance — and several bit players as well — died in an orgy of revenge between warring factions of ancient Rome.
The killing continued right up to the last haunting image of the night, in which we see the legacy of vengeance handed down to the next generation as both killer and victim.
But despite a caution to parents that the content might be too upsetting for small children (I didn't see many around), director Vincent Carlson-Brown's staging seemed not much bloodier or more graphic than other tragedies from past seasons.
What made this one particularly worth catching were some standout performances — especially by two women in a male-dominated cast.
Moira Mangiameli was mesmerizing as Tamora, the defeated Goth queen brought home to Rome by conquering general Titus Andronicus, only to become his worst enemy. Scheming Tamora marries the new emperor, turns her sons loose on Titus' only daughter, Lavinia, and cuckolds the emperor by having a child with her servant, Aaron the Moor.
Mangiameli is chillingly good in scene after hard-hearted scene — she makes you believe the actions of a woman sworn to get even for her humiliation and the execution of her son.
Sarah Carlson-Brown, the director's wife, is deeply moving as Lavinia, raped (offstage) by Tamora's sons. After they chop off her hands and cut her tongue, Lavinia has a piteous, half-crazed scene — and Carlson-Brown, too, makes you believe.
Beethovan Oden is a standout as Aaron. In two terrific scenes he revels in all the evil he has done. Nick Albrecht is also strong as Saturninus, the newly crowned emperor who marries Tamora, while Konrad Case is just right as Titus' eldest son, Lucius.
In the challenging role of Titus, Richard Marlatt makes me think the role is a clear foreshadowing of Shakespeare's King Lear, going a bit mad at the bitter cards life has dealt him — and that he has dealt himself.
A big plus for this production: striking visual images. Robbie Jones' scenic design, Herman Montero's lighting, Lindsay Pape's costumes and Carlson-Brown's staging combined for some memorable effects — never more than in a dreamlike scene where Tamora looms high above, disguised as a giant black bird. Her sons lurk as rape (a stag's head) and murder (a wolf) amid a thicket created only by shadow and light. Very cool.
Visually strong and, for the most part, well-acted, this “Titus” is heavy lifting — as it's meant to be. But its message about the endless cycle of revenge remains all too relevant today. Vincent Carlson-Brown and company give us something to bloody well think about. Oden, Mangiameli and Sarah Carlson-Brown give us something to admire and remember.