One show is Shakespeare's bloodiest, with the highest body count in the bard's canon of 38 plays.
The other has characters so full of love that they're bursting into contemporary song, and the show's color and tone have a distinct Dr. Seuss vibe.
The contrast between Nebraska Shakespeare's two annual free plays in Elmwood Park may never have been greater than in its 27th season, which opens tonight for a three-weekend run.
Even the directors of the plays reflect the striking differences between shows.
Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek, directing the romantic comedy “Twelfth Night,” has expertise as both a director and actor in broad physical comedy.
Vincent Carlson-Brown, director of the revenge tragedy “Titus Andronicus,” is known in local theater circles for impressive fight choreography — swords, knives, fisticuffs.
Carlson-Brown, interim director of the festival, said Nebraska Shakespeare always strives for balance, staging a comedy and a tragedy each year — one traditional, one cloaked in a fresh concept.
He said the popular “Twelfth Night” is contemporary, modern, hip and edgy this time, while “Titus,” never done before in the festival, is classical and traditional, and honors the place and time in which the play was originally set, Rome in the first century A.D.
Carlson-Brown said both he and Clark-Kaczmarek value each other's approach to the material. While “Twelfth Night” goes in a direction of the ridiculous with the comedy and music, Carlson-Brown will please fans who appreciate the more dramatic and serious with “Titus Andronicus,” which carries a mature-content warning.
For the first time at the festival, planners are asking parents to think before bringing young children because of what may be disturbing content for some.
The most horrifying moment, Carlson-Brown said, is the offstage rape of Titus' daughter, Lavinia. To silence her, the attackers cut out her tongue and chop off her hands. Even though the audience won't witness the act, they will see her onstage soon after, arms bandaged and blood pouring from her mouth.
Carlson-Brown said there are just three moments of blood in the production, but he has chosen them to underline tragic action. He's not going for horrifying gore, but he's not stylizing it to a minimum either.
“I'd like to believe Shakespeare's audience had a taste for revenge and violence,” he said, pointing out that public beheadings were common in Elizabethan England. “Playwrights later wrote that Shakespeare nailed the revenge tragedy, better than his contemporaries like Thomas Kidd, Marlowe or Ben Jonson.”
War and revenge, he said, are a part of contemporary culture, and today's audiences can relate in the same way Shakespeare's groundlings could.
On the flip side, Clark-Kaczmarek also sees universal themes in “Twelfth Night.”
“When we're in love we do some pretty ridiculous things, act frivolously, make bizarre choices,” he said. “Shakespeare explored that, too.”
The Seuss vibe, he said, is rooted in visual humor and word play, both of which Shakespeare used often. The costumes' bright primary colors are a heightened, intensified version of contemporary life, he said.
Clark-Kaczmarek said “Twelfth Night” has always been connected with music, and Shakespeare built songs of his day into the script.
“When you can't express your feelings with words, you break into song,” he said. “I took Shakespeare's cue. Music speaks to modern, vivid extremes.”
Instead of tunes from the 1590s, known by Shakespeare's audiences, Clark-Kaczmarek decided to substitute tunes widely known today, sometimes in place of flowery speeches. He carefully chose songs that express characters' feelings, then altered lyrics to include some of Shakespeare's words.
So, when Olivia falls for Cesario, he replaced her soliloquy with Carly Rae Jepsen's “Call Me Maybe,” reflecting a teen newly in love. And when Malvolio is imprisoned for crazy behavior, David Bowie's “Under Pressure” captures the moment.
“Sometimes it's sweet and heartfelt, and at other times it's a party onstage,” he said.
Music director Joel Johnston and choreographer Courtney Stein enliven those moments with movement and cuing snippets of nearly 20 songs.
Carlson-Brown said casting became a challenge, since both shows share the same actors. He said the performers they selected, a mix of professionals, locals and students, can do both the heaviest roles and the hottest contemporary songs.
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