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If William Shakespeare had been a 1970s filmmaker, Titus Andronicus would have been quite the hit on the grindhouse circuit: Its lurid blend of vengeance, sex, violence, gore, and racial provocation surely would have played well to exploitation audiences hungry for the basest stomach-churning spectacle. With its multiple behandings, stabbings, and even cannibalism, all stemming from a power struggle in ancient Rome revolving around the titular general, the play still hasn’t lost much of its shock value, even for desensitized modern eyes.
Most difficult to watch, no matter how many times you see Titus Andronicus, is the violence of men toward women. Two of those three behandings—plus rape, and the loss of a tongue—befall Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Rana Kay) at the hands of the two dimwitted but exceedingly cruel sons of Tamora, the Goth queen who ascends unexpectedly to Rome’s throne after being captured in war by Titus. Lavinia’s share of lamentable tragedy in this play—despite dad’s top billing—is unquestionably the greatest.
That violence makes Titus Andronicus a fascinating choice for Taffety Punk’s fifth selection for its ongoing series of Riot Grrrls shows, which flip the all-male tradition of Shakespeare’s time, casting only women. The genders of the characters remain the same, of course, but the cast of this production, under the direction of Lise Bruneau, taps into the horror of Lavinia’s story in a way that feels more immediate and discomfiting than other portrayals.
Are traditionally male-dominated Titus stagings uncomfortable with delving too deeply into the full scope of Lavinia’s suffering? It’s a question worth thinking about after seeing the Riot Grrrl interpretation; leaving the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, what stuck closest in my memory were Lavinia’s screams as she was carted off to her doom by Chiron and Demetrius, and the intensity of Rana Kay’s performance. Odd, and appropriate, that the most affecting character in a Shakespeare play is the one character who doesn’t have any words to speak.
One other lingering memory: the expert sound design by Palmer Hefferan, which augments foreboding drums of war—played live onstage—with an eerie soundtrack of nightmare sounds. It’s entirely appropriate that Taffety Punk is putting this show on in October—it’s a horror-movie take on Titus through and through, with that soundtrack, the gnarled trees built on the otherwise spare black box space, and some chilling lighting cues.
Isabelle Anderson has the right blend of high command and barely retained sanity as Titus, while Amanda Forstrom and Teresa Spencer take malicious glee in transforming the rapists Chiron and Demetrius into faux-gangsta gutterpunk tweakers. It may be an occasionally ragged production, with some ill-fitting costuming and the occasional bit of staging that demands more than a little imagination from the audience—in one scene, lacking a pit for characters to fall into, the area underneath a table stands in for the underground. But Shakespeare’s part in Titus Andronicus is to create a narrative that practically screams for attention—to the point where any deficiencies can be easily hidden, submerged beneath a rising flood of blood and carnage.
Photo by Brittany Diliberto