Flock Theatre performs Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus"

How much violence and death permeate Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus"?

"It makes 'Macbeth' look like a birthday party," says Derron Wood, who is directing Flock Theatre's "Titus Andronicus," which starts Wednesday, July 15, in the Connecticut College Arboretum.

Nine characters die onstage, and countless more do offstage. Talk about "murder most foul."

Indeed, "Titus" boasts enough  bloodthirsty revenge to rival "Game of Thrones."

The 16th-century piece, it is posited, was Shakespeare's version of the revenge plays that audiences loved at the time. "Titus" was, in fact, popular when it was first performed but lost stature over the years.

It became one of The Bard's less-often-performed pieces, although Julie Taymor — who directed a 1994 stage production and a 1999 movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange — has said she sees this as one of Shakespeare's most relevant works for the violent modern world.

This summer's production marks the first time Flock has taken on "Titus." The group has begun working some of Shakespeare's more obscure works into its schedule. Last year, for instance, Flock couched "Cymbeline" between two famous works — "Romeo and Juliet" and Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

This year, the idea was to schedule "Titus" between "Twelfth Night" and Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night." ("Long Day's Journey," though, has been postponed till next year; a Broadway revival has restricted the rights to productions surrounding New York, New England, Los Angeles and Chicago until mid-2016.)

But about "Titus": The title character is a Roman general just returned from a decade-long war with the Goths. He brings back some prisoners, including Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and gives them to the new Roman emperor. That new ruler, Saturninus, ends up marrying Tamora.

That, of course, puts Titus in an unenviable position. As Wood says, Titus has "been responsible for the destruction of (the Goths') culture, the death of this woman's husband, he sacrificed her oldest son in front of her — and now she's the queen and she's got power over him."

And she's not in a forgiving mood. Tamora and her sons scheme to get retribution against Titus and his clan.

Aaron, who is Tamora's lover, convinces her sons to kill the emperor's brother — Aaron will frame Titus' sons for that killing — and to rape Titus' daughter, Lavinia. They then cut out Lavinia's tongue and lop off her hands so she can't convey to anyone what happened.

While "Titus" can be savage, Flock is taking a stylized approach to the blood and gore. The production is using a lot of red ribbons and material, employing mask and puppetry work and incorporating Butoh and Michael Chekhov movement styles.

Butoh dance is a Japanese form that was created as sort of a reaction after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"It aims to slow things down, but it's very poetic and beautiful to watch. It's hypnotic but also horrifying," Wood says. There are "these incredible shapes and figures. It's mesmerizing. So we're playing with elements of that, within the horror with Lavinia, within the sacrifice of two boys and the final murder sequence."

The idea behind it, he says, is "so that you look at the violence less through the gore and horror, but ... trying to understand it through the revenge standpoint and the horror that we end up doing to each other."

"Titus Andronicus" is one of Shakespeare's earlier works, and audiences can see characters here who seem to be precursors to those in later plays. Wood notes that Aaron, who is the mastermind behind Titus's downfall, is "very much an Iago-type character." The Goth Queen likewise boasts elements of Lady Macbeth.

Shakespeare was exploring the idea of epic Greek tragedies — even though "Titus's" world is Roman — as well as "the level of what humans do to each other and why."

In that vein, the actors have discussed, among other aspects of the play, how a soldier who has gone through the horrors of war reintegrates into society.

"Where do all those heightened emotions go? What do you do with all the horrors that have occurred?" Wood says.

The cast features Geoff Latham as Titus, Madeleine Dauer as Lavinia, and Callie Beaulieu as Tamara the Goth Queen.

"Everyone's really excited about it because when do you get a chance to do 'Titus'?" Wood says.

"Titus Andronicus," Connecticut College Arboretum, Williams Street, New London; runs Wednesday, July 15, through Sunday, July 26; 7 p.m. Wed.-Sun.; also, 7 p.m. Aug. 1 at Connecticut River Museum in Essex; $15 adults, $10 students, seniors, active military; (860) 443-3119.

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