For twenty years, Shakespeare in the park has been as reliable a part of a Kansas City summer as the heat and humidity.
And while the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival is opening two shows in repertory, another Shakespeare play has snuck into town: the Bard's goriest play, Titus Andronicus, which is being staged with a minimal set and a band at the downtown performance space The Living Room.
Bloody revenge plays were all the rage in the late 16th century and it's believed William Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus in order to keep up with his contemporaries. Though wildly popular in it day, it's not produced all that often today because of its graphic violence. But that's the very reason director Kyle Hatley was drawn to it.
"One of the reasons I'm attracted to Titus Andronicus is because it is known as the bloodiest play of Shakespeare," Hatley says. "I love finding that sort of different layer (and) different interpretation on things that makes us as an audience look at things differently, and look at ourselves.
"Most Shakespeare plays have five unforgettable, memorable events in them. This play has five unforgettable, memorable events in every scene, and examines in a way - I think very specifically - a national anxiety, which feels awfully familiar."
Unlike Shakespeare's earlier history plays based on real historical figures, Titus Andronicus is a tragedy comprised of fictional characters. They're warring families whose hunger for power and prestige, Hatley says, results in them doing horrible things to each other and the children caught in the cross-hairs.
"When we meet them, they're all exhausted, because Rome is going through a change from a monarchy to a democracy; it's confused about what it wants to be and what it is now and what it's going to be," he says.
"By the end of the play, we've seen their rage, their vulnerability, their confusion - all these extreme human emotions.
"But it's also fertile for human compassion if you look at them as human beings rather than monsters. If you look at them as mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters, then there's a story that adds up to something larger than families."
Poetry in Motion
Because Shakespeare's plays are in the public domain, directors have the prerogative to cut or tweak the text to their will. As Hatley did for The Living Room's critically acclaimed production of Carousel last summer, he's partnered again with Eryn Bates Preston, a classically trained pianist and vocalist, who has written nearly a dozen songs for the show inspired by Shakespeare sonnets, including a number based on sonnets number 12 and 71 that closes Act One.
Asked how much she delved into the sonnets to find ones that would parallel the show's dark themes, Preston says, "Obsessively."
"I told Kyle to stop me; otherwise I'd be writing Titus exclamation point, Titus the musical," she adds. "I read all the sonnets multiple times, different versions that had different translations of what each sonnet meant. And tagged them as I read through Kyle's version of the script; I read through the script and saw where we might have musical moments. Piecing together these Shakespeare sonnets was so much fun. I'm an English nerd, so I really enjoyed doing that.
Blessing in Disguise
The Living Room's artistic director, Rusty Sneary, said that once he'd decided to stage Titus Andronicus in June, his first call was to Heart of America Shakespeare Festival's director, Sidonie Garrett, and all parties seem to agree that any city staging this much Shakespeare in such a contained time is more blessed than cursed.
Titus Andronicus, June 8-24, The Living Room, 1818 McGee, Kansas City, MO, 816-533-5857, thelivingroomkc.com