Blood spills in avant-garde theater production

Courtesy of Justin John Costello

Bill Thomas, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Art should be controversial.

That’s the mindset of 33-year-old stage director Justin John Costello of Kingston. His latest production, a risqué version of the already risqué Shakespearean potboiler “Titus Andronicus,” will run at Wilkes-Barre’s Little Theatre on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 10, 11 and 12.

True to form, Costello said his interpretation of the material is all about pushing buttons and breaking boundaries.

“No matter what the medium is, art should make you think. It should not be safe,” Costello said. “It’s visceral. It gets under your skin. All art should do that. I embrace the controversy. It inspires conversation and debate. The experience you have will travel with you when you leave.”

“Titus Andronicus” is arguably an ideal choice with such a goal in mind. The play is not only one of William Shakespeare’s most obscure works, it’s also one of his most violent. A bloody tale of deception and insanity, “Titus Andronicus” regales us with the downfall of the title character, a Roman general locked in a vicious conflict with Tamora, the Queen of the Goths.

Despite the well-worn vintage of the material, Costello promises his vision of “Titus Andronicus” will be anything but old-fashioned. For starters, the setting of the story has moved from ancient Rome to “outside of time.”

“Our set is completely symbolic. It’s not a traditional set at all,” Costello said. “The costuming is also all symbolic, based more on character than on any time period or setting. You will definitely not see anyone in togas.”

Citing such influences as “Theatre of Cruelty” founder Antonin Artaud and “Hellraiser” scribe Clive Barker in his decision to shape the aesthetics of his production with avant-garde theater techniques, Costello went on to describe “Titus Andronicus” as a bleak horror story that is “all about extremes.” He also stressed that the production is intended for mature audiences only.

“It’s going to be very dark,” he warned. “We’re going (heavy) with the blood. We’re amping up the sexuality and sensuality of the piece with costuming and what’s going on. We’re trying to make it as bold and provocative as it can be.”

Commenting on the choice to run “Titus Andronicus” the weekend before Valentine’s Day, Costello let out a wry, wicked chuckle and added that “nothing says love like revenge, murder, incest and adultery.”

Mark Petrole, 33, of Pittston, portrays Aaron, a character responsible for some of the play’s most memorable acts of debauchery and dismemberment. Though Petrole admitted he’s had more experience in the musical and comedy genres, the actor remarked that Costello’s experimental approach to the age-old play made this production an irresistible challenge.

“When I heard how he was going to be presenting this, I jumped at the challenge,” Petrole said. “I wanted to really grow as an actor, and I have. I’ve learned a lot. It’s really been different for me, really a challenge, but a fun one and one well worth taking.”

The torrid and tenebrous subject matter of “Titus Andronicus” may be fresh territory for some members of the cast, but Costello is no stranger to dramatic extremes. Among the director’s list of credits are productions of Clive Barker’s “History of the Devil,” Bryan Goluboff’s “The Other Five Percent” and Euripedes’ “The Bacchae.” With all that under his belt, you might think Costello is just about finished plumbing his darkest depths.

You would be wrong.

This spring, Costello hopes to finally make flesh a pet project he’s been nursing for several years. Titled “Amongst the Living,” it’s an independent film to be lensed throughout NEPA. The thematic meat of the picture, Costello said, will deal with his favorite artistic obsessions: horror, sexuality, identity and religion.

Why such a fixation on the more sinister sides of the human condition?

“Clive (Barker) said it best when he said ‘Sometimes you have to embrace the darkness in order to see the light,’” Costello explained. “Then you can recognize the good things that are happening.”

Titus Andronicus” will run at Little Theatre (537 N. Main St., Wilkes-Barre) at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 10 and 11, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 12. Tickets are $10 to the general public, but admission is free for Wilkes students with a valid college ID.

For more information, call 570-823-1875 or visit littletheatre.org.