Upstart Crow, You Had Me at “All-Female Titus”

Photo by John Ulman

When I heard about upstart crow collective’s entirely female Titus Andronicus (at Seattle’s U’s Lee Center through October 7; tickets), my stomach gleefully lurched, and I purchased away with a bloody, macabre song in my heart. All women? Are you serious? This hardly ever happens! (I may have squealed.)

Shakespeare often underserves contemporary female actors, with lackluster roles or only two women in a twenty-person cast. Seeing talented female actors playing bit parts as handmaids, fairies, or even the larger, yet rarely deep characters gets old and generally inspires rants about failures of creativity. Tthere are exceptions, of course, but only exceptions–not rules.)

(Why, in 2012, with everything else in play, are we putting on Shakespeare the way he gender-assigned it? It makes no sense, so I have to try to play the “Because” game to explain it. Romeo’s best friend can’t be a chick because…dudes aren’t friends with girls? An entirely genderbent play has to stay the way it was originally designated because…if we have a woman outside the designated cross-dressing it loses all meaning? Fools are strictly males because…they make dick jokes? Did I get any of them right? I digress.)

Having read Titus Andronicus long ago in some darkened high school lit class, I vaguely remembered it involved a lot of blood, rape, dismemberment, and eating people. Since I’ve been worried about the zombie apocalypse, it didn’t seem like too much of a stretch in my 2012 doom-countdown clock that an all-female Titus might be one of the four Horsemen, but in Goth garb, tattoos, and piercings. (Oh yes, it’s hot.)

Let me just throw out some names that cinched the deal for me: Rhonda J. Soikowski, Peggy Gannon, and Tracy Hyland. Amy Thone is Titus. Oh. Wait. Go back. Amy Thone is Titus. Holy crap.

So, aside from clearly pandering to me and my uncontrollable need to watch talented women perform Shakespearean characters outside of the usual fluff of Nurse and Peaseblossom, the production is actually quite good, though bumpy in a few places. Set in the round (with a rather lovely design by Carol Wolfe Clay), I was struck by the altars lining the walls. There were white urns smeared with blood behind me, and a large bloody table with a dropcloth in front. I was surrounded on both sides by overhanging black staircases.

Under the direction of Rosa Joshi, the immediate contrast between Soikowski’s Bassianus and Kelly Kitchen’s Saturninus sets up the premise of a kingdom torn between two different brothers for the throne–one warm and smiling and one severe. Further, the loving gestures shown in the small and quick moments between Bassianus and his love Lavinia (Brenda Joyner) make you acutely aware as cute and happy as they are, it cannot end well. Meanwhile, the beautifully nasty portrayal of the two brothers from the Goth side of things (Gannon and Sarah Harlett) will ruin your faith in humanity especially during the battery of Lavinia.

Nike Imoru shines as the evil-at-heart Aaron, manipulating any and all to gain power. Strangely enough, I did not question this fact even when he looked on his baby. No softness came through, per se, but the subtle shift into being evil for evil’s sake and suddenly having progeny to provide purpose was quite captivating.

Thone balanced Titus’ love of his children, desire to be left to aging with grace, and the possibility of insanity with clear contrasts driving the play forcefully home. The decision to sever his hand juxtaposed with his inability to comfort a tongue-less, handless, and utterly destroyed Lavinia is perhaps the best example of Thone’s skill.

I had hoped this production would be spotless, but not all is shiny. At times the production became spotty and unclear in its tone. When the deceased cast comes back to set the table for the cannibalistic dinner, I felt like I was watching another play. Though it was darkly humorous and had me giggling, the play shifted from dark deeds by dark men to sweet revenge with a camp twist. And though I liked this short transition for its macabre glee, the turn from intense and serious violence to farce was a little jarring.

Complicating the issue was how the production dealt with blood. They chose to show the puppet strings of theatrical blood effects. We see the syringe that shoots blood from a knife; we see blood poured on a chest in a ritualized manner after the character dies. It made the would-be mess tidy, but also stylized and confused. While some moments came off wonderfully lusty in the pouring of blood, others were almost comical. Further, a few of the asides seemed to be lit as if the characters were B-movie villains delivering their monologues about orchestrating the invasion of earth. Not just lit that way, I should say, but also delivered in some instances as if they were expected to end them with a “Muahahahaha.”

Added together, these choices made me wonder: Is it camp? Tongue-in-cheek? Completely serious? I couldn’t be sure. Of course, the play does lend itself to over-the-top dramatics by the end. Having endured so much death, blood, and abuse, is there anything to do but laugh? But in this instance, it did not necessarily feel earned, instead broadcasting the ridiculousness of the circumstances and cheapening an otherwise emotionally captivating production.

Aside from that, there was an overriding question I couldn’t help but ask: When are they women playing men, and when are they performing as women in a male part? I enjoyed exploring this question through the variety of performance and honestly want to see it again, if no other reason than to document the play for its queer and gender theory lens. There were actors who performed as women throughout (Kitchens, Tracy Hyland). There were actors performing men without the seams of femininity at all (Gannon, Imoru, Soikowski, and Harlett). And then there was Thone, who seemed to shift between mother and father, both male and female.

Rather than taking me out of the performance, I felt that the question added to how we approach the text and story. When is Titus the man actually a mother? How is Aaron’s self-proclaimed evil side squelched with a softer touch when a son is born to him? And the larger question of why these choices are categorized in clearly imperfect gendered binaries. Why does it hurt more that this Titus doesn’t know how to comfort his daughter? I don’t know. But it does.

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