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"Macbeth" may be Shakespeare's bloodiest play, but "Titus Andronicus" is by far the most brutal and gruesome. Here, people aren't merely killed, they're mutilated, raped, carved into small pieces, and baked into pies. Along the way we're treated to a banquet of revenge, betrayal, lust, and deception, as we ride an emotional roller coaster of true love, genuine despair, and madness, both real and fake. Each act of violence begins a new cycle of revenge that ultimately wipes out most of three families. On the Elizabethan stage at OSF, Ashland, James Edmondson's production turns it into a searing drama that has you on the edge of your seat for two and a half hours.

The sets are very militaristic and rich in symbolism. There are Roman standards, steel grates leaning back against the stage, a giant hand set back at the left, the lower half of a skull set back on the right, and the upper half of the skull on the second story, that hangs like a symbol of death, presiding over the entire play, and bathed in blood red light at the end.

The Emperor is dead and his two sons claim the throne. Andronicus returns from conquering the Goths, with prisoners including Tamora, their Queen, and her three sons. Titus appears with his four remaining sons out of twenty-five, and two dead ones wrapped in red cloth for burial. The people want him to be emperor, but he declines and throws his support to Saturninus. He gives his daughter, Lavinia, with his support. She, however, is in love with Bassianus, the Emperor's other son. They run away, and Titus kills his son Mutius, when he tries to help them. Saturninus then chooses Tamora, and frees all of the Goth prisoners. Tamora and her secret lover Aaron, the Moor, then plot their revenge.

Bassianus is killed by Tamora's sons, Chiron and Demetrius. They, then cast the blame on Titus' sons Quintus and Martius, and brutally rape his daughter Lavinia, before mutilating her. Aaron tells Titus that his sons' lives will be spared if he cuts off his hand. He does, and he's brought the heads of his sons and his hand in mocking jest. William Langan raves in madness as he sees his whole family, save his son Lucius, maimed or destroyed. He commands Lucius, who is banished by Saturninus, to go to the Goths and raise an army to avenge himself against Rome. Titus unnerves the Emperor by shooting arrows to the Gods into the courtyard of Saturninus. Lavinia uses a stick to write the names of her attackers in the sand, and Titus sends weapons with messages to them.

Aaron and his newborn son by Tamora, are captured by the Goths and Lucius. In exchange for not killing his son, Aaron tells of all the evil he's done. He then says if he's done a single good deed in his life, he repents it. Tamora comes to Titus as Revenge, with her sons as Murder and Rapine. He fakes madness to convince her to leave her sons while they set up a council with her, the Emperor, and Lucius. When she leaves, he and his men capture and ritualistically kill the sons, before baking them into a pie and feeding them to their Mother and the Emperor. They are then killed and Lucius made Emperor.

"Titus Andronicus" is not updated, but rather is staged in a mythical Rome that is similar to the one in which Shakespeare set it. The playbill is prefaced with the quote of a Father in the Middle East, reported on ABC News, March, 2002 - "If you kill our children, we will kill yours." It's amazing how little we have advanced, culturally since the time of Shakespeare, indeed since at least the time of Rome, in this respect. One cycle of violence begets a cycle of revenge, and on and on. At some point, it seems that someone has to say enough, or, with the weapons at our disposal now, and in the foreseeable future, the whole world will blow. "Titus Andronicus" is probably the most difficult Shakespeare play I ever sat through, but at the same time, it was thoroughly compelling. It's not necessarily entertaining, but something that draws you in and locks you, similar to news coverage of an event like Sept. 11, or, for those of us old enough, the JFK Assassination. It tears you apart, but you can't tear yourself away. "Titus Andronicus" is a riveting show, and it continues outdoors on the Elizabethan stage at OSF, Ashland through October 12.

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