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Time is Titus 

Shakespeare by the Sea brings the Bard’s bloodiest play to the park for their 18th season.

L-R SBTS’ Riley Raymer (Lavinia), Marty Burt (Titus) and Kimberley Cody (Tamora) in a rare bloodless moment. - MELISSA DUBÉ
  • L-R SBTS’ Riley Raymer (Lavinia), Marty Burt (Titus) and Kimberley Cody (Tamora) in a rare bloodless moment.
  • Melissa Dubé

It contains an average of one atrocity for every 97 lines.

This is a statistic that Jesse MacLean casually throws out while discussing Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus. It's a story overflowing with rape, mutilations, cannibalism and all manner of bloodletting, and MacLean, Shakespeare by the Sea's co-artistic director and director of Titus, is excited to be staging it.

"This is a classic revenge tragedy, filled with so many really interesting moments and with a really interesting and complex character at its centre. Despite the fact that it's not nearly as well known as say Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, it's just as captivating. It's just so amazing to see Shakespeare as a young writer testing out his future themes."

While SBTS is committed to staging all of Shakespeare's works, MacLean says that choosing to put on Titus specifically was an opportunity to echo current events.

"This is a political play, and obviously with the United States and municipal elections happening this year, politics is on a lot of people's minds. Plus, it's a story about revolution, a great way to reflect back a culture that's involved with things like the Tea Party and Occupy movements."

Titus Andronicus is a fictional story set in the last days of the Roman Empire. Titus, a general in the Roman army, has defeated the Goths and returns to the city with their queen, Tamora, as well as her three sons and her secret lover Aaron the Moor, as prisoners. Titus sacrifices Tamora's eldest son as revenge for the killing of several of his own.

Titus is offered Rome's throne, but refuses in favour of a quiet retirement. Saturninus is declared emperor, and announces that he will marry Titus' daughter Lavinia, in spite of the fact that she is already legally betrothed to Bassianus. Blood shedding ensues, with Tamora's remaining sons killing Bassianus and framing Titus' sons for the deed. Tamora's sons then go on to brutally rape Lavinia and chop off her hands and tongue to prevent her from revealing them as her attackers.

The back-and-forth revenge continues until a penultimate banquet scene that ends with the deaths of pretty much the entire cast of characters.

Lavinia is played by Riley Raymer, a newcomer to SBTS who was given the role, as well as the decidedly lighter ones of Alice in Alice in Wonderland and Mrs. Quickly in Merry Wives of Windsor, after an open audition call. Hailing from Markham, Ontario, Raymer has reversed the trajectory of most young local actors by leaving Toronto to find work on the east coast.

"While I love Toronto with all its theatre, film and television, I really liked the idea of living and working in a smaller community where people are supportive and care about each other. Halifax really fits the bill for me."

On the day of the interview, Raymer is found memorizing lines in SBTS' Park Place headquarters. A notebook is in front of her, filled with her tidy writing and scanned into its iambic pentameter.

"I never really saw myself as a classical theatre actor," she says. "And I was really nervous when I found out I'd actually be working at Shakespeare by the Sea, just because they have such a great reputation. But everyone in the company has been so helpful and I've got a lot out of working with Michael Keating, the voice director. I'd have to say I've really rediscovered my love of Shakespeare."

Although Lavinia is a dutiful daughter and mute for much of the play, Raymer says she is not entirely passive.

"I've been really pleased during the blocking process to realize that Lavinia has been given a little bit of fight. She's not just a passive victim. There's actually some fighting spirit and physicality to her."

The fight scenes, which mostly involve machetes and daggers, are choreographed by Jeremy Hutton, whom both director MacLean and Marty Burt, the actor who plays the titular Titus, describe as a "brilliant" fight director.

"There are so many fights and so many gruesome murders," says Burt, a veteran actor who also worked with SBTS in 1995, 1996 and 2006. "But we're not going really bloody. The violence will be represented in a stylized way, partly because fake blood can be challenging outdoors. It actually attracts mosquitoes!"

Burt, who is in his 40s, is thrilled to be playing the meaty role of Titus and grateful that SBTS has decided to take on the lesser-known work.

"It's so exciting to get the chance to be in something that audiences don't necessarily have pre-conceived ideas about. There can be more artistic freedom if people aren't as familiar with a story," he explains. "I've been in seven productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and two productions of Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, but this might be the only chance I get to play the role of Titus."

Burt says that Titus Andronicus should appeal to the many fans of George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones novels and the popular television series made from them, which have similar themes to the play. He also points out that the play's running time has been cut down to fit in with more modern sensibilities.

"In Shakespeare's time, people were partying and tuning in and out during the play. There had to be lots of repetition so that people could follow the story line. But Jesse [MacLean] has done a great job of cutting chunks out and still telling the story we want to be told."

And while SBTS is known to have introduced many children to the pleasures of theatre, MacLean suggests that Titus Andronicus is definitely not a family show.

"Parental guidance is heavily suggested," he says with a laugh. "If you want your kids to come along, go see Alice."

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