There Will Be Blood: Court Theatre puts a new spin on Shakespeare’s infamous “Titus Andronicus”

If “Titus Andronicus” is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, conventional wisdom says it’s because the thing is just too damned violent. The spectacle features a seemingly endless cavalcade of body parts getting chopped off, a disturbing rape scene, and a feast that culminates in the guests’ realization that the pie they’re eating is made of human flesh. It’s difficult to watch and difficult to stage, and plenty of criticism has been lobbed over the years at a piece of work that many detractors consider the Bard’s crudest effort, perhaps because it’s also one of his earliest. But with broadly grinning gusto for the challenge to get audiences to appreciate this black sheep of the Shakespearean canon, director Charles Newell sees the play as having an intensely relevant social value–not despite its appallingly violent content, but because of it.

In his upcoming adaptation for Court Theatre, where he has also been the Artistic Director since 1994, Newell situates the play in the setting of a modern-day dinner being held in honor of new initiates in a powerful secret society. It’s the kind of group that’s as covertly influential as it is elite, full of people that will be “not presidents,” Newell explains, “but the people who determine who gets to be president.” During the event, the initiates are given scripts and asked to do a spontaneous performance of “Titus Andronicus,” with the implicit understanding that their role-playing will be evaluated and will likely have real social import in their lives.

When the newly appointed players begin their impromptu spectacle, they treat it lightly; one actor rubs fruit on his stomach in a ridiculous representation of a stab wound. But as they continue, the line between the simulation of violence and actual violence becomes frighteningly blurry, and is finally immolated when a sexual assault occurs not against Shakespeare’s Lavinia, but against the character playing her at the party. The modern-day characters begin to mold uncomfortably into the roles they’ve been thrust into, and acts of violence that once seemed like harmless masquerade become disturbingly real.

Suddenly, each individual must confront the implications of his or her role in an uncomfortable examination of the relationship between what we do and who we are. We all know people in our lives who draw a casual border between the way they behave and the actual spiritual content beneath the veneer–like the guy who just thinks it’s funny to act like an asshole, but assures you that he’s “a good person deep down.” But in the end, can there really be a distinction between our performance in the eyes of others and the “true” character we’d like to believe resides beneath the surface? The audience will have to ask this of itself as each character ends the play having had to confront, as Newell describes it, “their most bestial selves, their worst selves.”

In the process, the director hopes audiences will see the price we all pay for the perpetual traps of aggression and vengeance he sees plaguing our lives. “It seems like we’re caught incessantly in these cycles of violence,” he says, “that we can’t get out of. ‘I, as an Israeli, have to kill the Palestinian because he killed me; I, the Palestinian have to kill the Israeli because he killed me; I am in a red state; I am in a blue state.’ And we don’t ever connect. How do we break that? We are stuck in violence, not just physical violence, but economic, racial, sexual, and political violence.” As Newell sees it, “Titus” is not simply a brutal collection of shocking acts, but “a human event,” with real costs “to our soul, to our emotional life, to our connection, to our betterment. How do we get out of it?” he asks. I’m hoping that through Shakespeare’s play, we’ll open the door to that question.”

“Titus Andronicus,” Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. January 10-February 10. Showtimes vary. (773)753-4472. www.courttheatre.org