Know more about the band Titus Andronicus than the play by William Shakespeare? Asheville-based actor/director Michael MacCauley can relate.
Despite nearly 30 years of professional acting experience and more than 30 Shakespeare productions to his name — including work as a director, vocal coach and stage combat choreographer — he’d neither read nor seen a performance of The Bard’s first tragedy. Then Montford Park Players artistic director Scott Keel invited him to helm the theater company’s Friday, July 8, through Saturday, July 30, run at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater, and MacCauley became acquainted with the playwright’s shocking, visceral commentary on the senselessness of war.
“I was like, ‘Holy moly!’ It’s one of those [experiences where you think], ‘They what? They what?’ as you keep reading it. It’s relentless,” MacCauley says. “It gets so violent and so absurd to a point that you almost have to laugh at it because it is so ridiculous.”
Set in a borderline postapocalyptic world where tattered cloths hang from objects both living and inanimate, Titus Andronicus follows the titular Roman general as he returns from a vicious war with the Goths, kills their Queen Tamora’s eldest son as payment for his own slaughtered children and sets off a series of bloody vengeance. Though MacCauley says the tragedy is “its own unique beast,” he considers it a prequel of sorts to Macbeth and King Lear. Elements of both plays — including Lady Macbeth prototype Tamora — are evident in this earlier work, which also finds Shakespeare freer and willing to take more risks.
“I think it’s sort of wonderful to see a young playwright who doesn’t fall into restrictions of, ‘Oh, I should do this. I should do that.’ Some of his later plays might have more finesse and more depth in terms of the poetry, but he sort of wrote this without giving … you know. He threw caution to the wind,” MacCauley says. “There are 14 killings, six dismemberments, cannibalism, a case of rape. Every sort of atrocity you could possibly want to wrap your mind around, it pretty much exists in this play. Some critic wrote, ‘There’s an atrocity approximately every 90 lines,’ which is just sort of extraordinary.”
If Titus Andronicus was a film, MacCauley says he would rate it NC-17 and stresses that the material is not suitable for children. He adds that the excessive violence makes Shakespeare’s other tragedies look almost wimpy by comparison, but that its critique of such behavior is especially timely in light of the June 12 mass shooting in Orlando and other recent acts of brutality. Furthermore, for its potential to raise awareness and enact social change through jarring means, MacCauley sees similarities between this 16th-century work and one of modern cinema’s most controversial auteurs.
“It’s akin to Quentin Tarantino in that way,” he says. “I think [Tarantino] is absolutely brilliant in that, in the senseless violence, you have this sort of sardonic, kind of tongue-in-cheek humor about it, too, that it makes you realize the absurdity of the whole thing.”
The process of getting to know Titus Andronicus isn’t the only professional first for MacCauley this summer. As an Equity actor living in Western North Carolina, making a living means working for Flat Rock Playhouse and N.C. Stage Company. MacCauley has been longtime friends with many of the Montford Park Players simply through being part of the same small, close-knit acting community, but he’d yet to work with them as a company until Keel offered him a guest artist contract.
Part of that agreement includes MacCauley playing Angelo in the Players’ August production of Measure for Measure, which will mark the first time he’s performed outdoors since playing Edgar in King Lear at the Dallas Shakespeare Festival “in graduate school, many, many, many, many years ago.” MacCauley’s only other outdoor theater work was acting out the wooing scene from The Taming of the Shrew and the sword fight from Macbeth for a New Jersey Renaissance festival in 95-degree heat. In hindsight, he views that experience more as an exercise in losing weight than performing Shakespeare and looks forward to being part of a full play on the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater stage.
“It’s a great space. It’s so beautiful,” MacCauley says. “The setting is gorgeous, and it’s one of the longest-running Shakespeare festivals in the country, so it’s really a wonderful and rare opportunity.”
WHAT: Titus Andronicus
WHERE: Hazel Robinson Amphitheater, 92 Gay St., montfordparkplayers.org
WHEN: Friday, July 8, through Saturday, July 30, on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Free