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- Essentially, "Titus Andronicus," one of the most difficult of Shakespeare's works to stage, is a sort of "Sweeney Todd Meets William Shakespeare by Way of Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

It is a tale of revenge, counterrevenge and counter-counterrevenge, a gory chronicle of heinous crimes, decadence, debauchery, multiple on-stage ravishments, decapitations, severed limbs, barbaric deeds and filicide (look it up) - a veritable shopping list of unspeakable horrors and frenzied passions.

No wonder it took the Utah Shakespearean Festival 29 years to work up enough courage to bring it to the stage.

But don't let me scare you away. "Titus Andronicus" is powerful drama on a grand scale. While the abundant mayhem is at the forefront (one critic, S. Clark Hulse, once calculated that the play contains an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines), the work also contains some of Shakespeare's most inspired and poetic prose.

Director Richard Rizzo has, wisely, tempered the excessive bloodshed somewhat, although those who are extremely squeamish might flinch at the sight of bloodied stumps where there were once hands, or when the severed heads of two of Titus' sons are returned to him and placed on the floor at center stage.

But it isn't just the murders and massacres that keep this play from being performed as much as it should. It's difficult mainly because of the sheer logistics, requiring a cast of 33 to portray the 42 roles (43, actually, considering that one actor in the very first scene is the corpse of one of the 25 sons that Titus has already lost in the lengthy war against the Goths).

By the time the house lights dim on the final act, the number of living characters has been pared to roughly 28, with the other one-third either long-since buried or sprawling on the floor at the climax of the bloody banquet scene.

Risso - as are the directors of the other five festival productions - has been working with a strong, well-trained cast.

Leading the pack is Ken Ruta as the victorious but aging Roman general, who quickly descends from an acclaimed hero to a babbling madman to a psychopathic killer.

While the play is named for Titus, two other characters are equally important - Tamora, the captive Queen of the Goths (and a conniving vixen who is party to one despicable atrocity after another in order to wreak her revenge), and Aaron, her lusty Moorish lover, who is evil incarnate and the proud father of her illegitimate son.

Any actor will tell you that villains are the most delicious, attention-grabbing roles - and Megan Cole (who's also earning raves as Mrs. Alving in "Ghosts" at the festival) and LeWan Alexander (also seen as the comical Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet"), have a real field day as the dastardly duo. Aaron, who wields an unusual amount of influence over Tamora, is accountable for the majority of the body count by the play's end. Together, Aaron and Tamora are at the very center of the drama's continually swirling vortex of violence.

One of the festival's most talked-about performers this season is the incredibly gifted young actress Melanie van Betten. Already this week she presented first-nighters a fresh and exuberant Juliet. The next night she was just as exciting in her emotionally wrenching portrayal of Lavinia, Titus' only daughter and a beautiful maiden who is viciously ravaged and mutilated by Tamora's hot-headed sons.

Van Betten is a brilliant young actress who's going places.

Other noteworthy performers in "Titus" include Robert Clendenin as Saturninus, the arrogant and really not-too-bright newly appointed emperor of Rome; Doug Zschiegner (CHIG-ner) as Marcus Andronicus, Titus' brother and the only Roman tribune who shows any statesmanlike behavior; and Simon Billig and Tom Elliott as Chiron and Demetrius, Tamora's two evil sons who meet their demise as the key ingredients in the meat pie served to their own mother at Titus' banquet, where blood flows more readily than wine. (And you thought "Sweeney Todd" had cornered the meat-pie market on stage. This must explain why Marie Callender's didn't take any ads out in the Utah Shakespearean Festival 1990 program.)

"Titus Andronicus" was immensely popular when Shakespeare first wrote it in 1594. The Tudors loved their revenge plays as much as 20th century moviegoers flock to blood-and-guts horror films today. "Titus" is known to have run for more than 17 years in London after it was published, although the plot itself has no basis in historical fact - probably lifted from a number of sources.

But it's filled with magnificent dialogue, fine acting and plenty of action.

For many lovers of Shakespeare, this season's production of "Titus" could be their one and only chance to see it staged in their lifetime this close to home.

And it's being done by a company that's considered one of the very top Shakespearean troupes in the country.

Like "Coreolanus" in 1977, "Titus Andronicus" could be the critical "sleeper" of the 1990 summer season.

It certainly deserves to be.