When you think of Shakespeare’s plays, there’s a long list of titles that tends to come to mind — “Romeo and Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” “MacBeth,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “King Lear,” just to name a few.
Almost nobody thinks of “Titus Andronicus,” considered Shakespeare’s first tragedy and probably his most violent work, full of murder and bloody revenge. But director Doug Minnerly, who presents the play this weekend at the Bullock Distillery on Charleston’s West Side, said perhaps that should change.
“As gory and as bloody as it is, it’s kind of a wonderful play,” he said. “It’s unlike any other Shakespeare play in many respects.”
For one thing, Minnerly said, there’s none of the existential musing like in “Hamlet.”
“It’s all pretty straightforward,” Minnerly said. “It’s a revenge tragedy, which were very popular in Elizabethan theater.”
Like most professional writers. Shakespeare was trying to turn a buck and wrote what audiences were buying.
“The analogy might be the slasher films of the 1980s,” Minnerly said. “There were a bunch of those.”
The body count might even be similar, the director pointed out.
“There’s 13 or 14 deaths during the play,” he said. “Within the first five minutes, somebody has been taken off to be dismembered, burned and then sacrificed to the gods. There’s revenge and then revenge and then revenge for revenge.”
“But,” Minnerly added, “in the midst of all that carnage, there is some really beautiful language.”
Shakespeare once wrote “the play’s the thing,” but for Minnerly and his makeshift troupe, the play is and it isn’t. “Titus Andronicus” is meant as a first step toward establishing a new theater company in Charleston.
“What we hope will come of this is will be a core group of people who, perhaps, want to do a different kind of theater than is typically available and work with a different process,” he said.
Minnerly said he believes most community theaters work from a top-down approach with directors telling actors what they want done and how to do it.
“I don’t want to call what we’re doing a collective,” he said. “But we want to encourage actors to participate in the creative process and bring their own ideas.”
The director said he was excited about the prospect, but thought they had some distance to go before they could realize that vision.
Casting for “Titus Andronicus” wasn’t easy, but Minnerly said that shouldn’t surprise anyone.
“Everybody has that problem except for Charleston Light Opera Guild and Children’s Theatre, where 80 kids come out for 40 roles,” he said.
Minnerly said he’s got a good cast and everyone has been open to tackling the idiosyncrasies of Shakespearean language and syntax, which can be awkward.
The venue for the production isn’t meant to be a permanent home for the startup theater company. For “Titus Andronicus,” the cast is setting up inside Bullock Distillery on Charleston’s West Side.
“When we cast the play [and] did auditions, we didn’t have a venue,” Minnerly said.
The Bullock family was kind to let them use the front of their distillery business, the future tasting room, Minnerly explained.
“We don’t go in back where they have the whiskey,” he laughed.
Minnerly said he isn’t sure where future shows would take place, and they weren’t thinking that far ahead.
“What we have now is perfect for what we have in mind and in a part of town where things are happening,” he said.
A pay-what-you-will preview of the play will be held 8 p.m. Thursday at the Distillery.