I saw my first performance at the Utah Shakespeare Festival when I was 9 years old. For a while, it was an annual tradition for my family, and over the years we saw The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar. When the Randall L. Jones Theatre opened in Cedar City in 1989 we began to watch non-Shakespearean plays too — Waiting for Godot, The Imaginary Invalid, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire.
Since an appreciation of Shakespeare was ingrained in me at a young age, it is natural that I would grow into a Shakespeare nerd. I was probably the only 4th grader checking out Shakespeare plays at the library, in high school I acted in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I’ve even seen a play at the re-constructed Globe Theatre in London. But my Shakespeare obsession culminated this summer when I read The Complete Works — nearly one million words of Shakespeare.
Despite being nearly broke this summer, I was determined to find a way to visit the Utah Shakespeare Festival again. For the 2012 season, they have an especially good line-up of plays, and my favorite Shakespeare play was being performed: Titus Andronicus. Fortunately we landed on some half-priced tickets, and only paid $20 a piece for center gallery seats. We made the round-trip from Las Vegas to Cedar City in a day, so it was quite an affordable venture — much cheaper than seeing a show on the Strip.
While Titus Andronicus was one of the most popular plays during Shakespeare’s day, it is rarely performed in modern times because of how gruesome it is.
The play is set during the late Roman Empire and the title character is a general in the Roman army. At the opening of the play, there is an election for the open post of Roman Emperor and the citizens are divided between the deceased emperor’s sons Saturninus and Bassianus. They instead elect Titus, who declines the post due to his age. He rather endorses Saturninus, who is quickly crowned.
Titus has just returned victorius from a war with the Goths and has taken the Goth Queen Tamora, her sons and her lover Aaron as prisoners. He sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son, refusing to listen to her cries for mercy. Tamora vows revenge. Titus offers his only daughter Lavinia to the newly-crowned emperor, but she is already betrothed to Bassianus. Saturninus decides to take the available Tamora as his emperess.Titus’ sons side with Bassianus, and frustrated by their betrayal and accusing them of treason, Titus kills one of his sons. And this is only the first act.
The next day Aaron persuades Tamora’s two surviving sons to kill Bassianus and rape Lavinia. With Tamora as consenting witness, the duo carry out the plan, cutting out Lavinia’s tongue and dismembering her hands in the process. Aaron frames two of Titus’ sons for Bassianus’ murder and they are arrested by the emperor.
Lavinia is discovered by her uncle Marcus, who later brings her to her distraught father. Aaron arrives to inform Titus of his sons’ imminent execution, but offers to spare their lives if either Marcus, Titus or Titus’ son Lucius will sacrifice one of his own hands for the emperor. Titus willingly chops off one of his hands, placing it in an envelope for the emperor. Shortly thereafter, a messenger returns with the severed heads of Titus’ two sons and Titus’ hand.
Struck by continuous grief, Titus becomes increasingly mad and hungry for revenge. Marcus discovers a way for Lavinia to write the names of her attackers in the sand while hugging a stick in her arms. At night, Tamora and her two sons show up at Titus’ study dressed as the spirits of Revenge, Murder and Rape. Titus pretends to be convinced that they are spirits sent to help him carry out revenge, and insists that Murder and Rape (played by the two sons) stay to assist him. When Tamora leaves, Lavinia and Titus kill the sons, chopping off their heads in the process.
Act 5 concludes with a banquet attended by Saturninus, Tamora and Titus’ only surviving son Lucius. Titus serves them a feast as a supposed peace offering, and as they indulge, Titus asks Saturninus if a father should kill his daughter after she has been raped to defend the family’s honor. Saturninus replies affirmatively, and Titus stabs Lavinia.
When Saturninus and Tamora beckon for Tamora’s sons, Titus delivers the classic line, “Why, there they are both, baked in that pie; Whereof their mother daintily hath fed, Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred,” and kills Tamora as well. Saturninus then stabs Titus, and Lucius kills Saturninus. Lucius is then crowned as the new Roman Emperor and given the task to heal Rome.
We were fortunate to witness the play in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s outdoor theatre amidst a brewing thunderstorm, which only added to the play’s dramatic effect.
Although, the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 season will close next weekend, the 2013 season has recently been announced. There’s also a variety of free events associated with the festival, including literary and production seminars and a nightly Greenshow in the courtyard that is great for kids. Play orientations are also held in the festival auditorium each day at 1 pm for matinees and 6:45 pm for evening performances.
To grab a quick bite of food before the performance, the festival’s Sweet Shoppe offers an extensive menu of affordable, light bites. I opted for a tasty summerberry tart and hot English tea for $4, but they also have more substantial fare that would constitute a full meal. Of course, if you will be watching Titus Andronicus, you might want to pass on the meat pie.