Directed by Lise Bruneau for Taffety Punk Theatre Company at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington, DC, United States of America, 4 October 2013
Review by Katherine Bradshaw, George Washington University.
When a friend and I sat down for Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s Titus Andronicus, I was torn between excitement and apprehension. As an enthusiastic repeat “T-Punk” audience member, I looked forward to this small, experimental theatre company’s rendition. However, I wasn’t sure if Taffety’s refreshingly offbeat style would work well with the extremely difficult Titus. In particular, how would the company’s specialty all-female performance wing – known as the “Riot Grrrls” – interpret this Roman bloodbath? Would cross-casting decrease the effect of Titus’ horrors? No, indeed, the Riot Grrrls played Titus with a frightening believability that underscored the psychological horrors of the play’s inhuman cruelty and human suffering.
The characters that particularly illustrated the impact of the Riot Grrrls’ cross-casting were Chiron and Demetrius, played by Amanda Forstrom and Teresa Spencer. It’s hard enough to watch Tamora’s sons tormenting Lavinia for their mother’s benefit before carrying Lavinia offstage to rape and mutilate her when male actors play Chiron and Demetrius. But, in Taffety’s Titus, violence against women was not only encouraged, but also (thinking metatheatrically) committed by women – even more stomach-turning. Here arises the obvious question ‘How can female actors believably depict male rapists?’. The Riot Grrrls’ performance answered, ‘When the actors embody callous, decadent young men with lots of energy and hormones, but little self-control.’ Forstrom and Spencer’s harsh vocals, sweeping arm movements, and even manner of standing – feet apart, snickering as they leaned back with hands in pockets or jeering as they leaned forward with hands on knees – all communicated Chiron and Demetrius’ disturbing bravado. Yet, Forstrom and Spencer brought a haunting humanity to their characters, particularly when Tamora disguised herself as Revenge. Chiron, who laughed off his crimes, regarded deceiving Lavinia’s father as a hilarious prank, and tried to share a laugh about it with Demetrius. However, Demetrius suddenly sat down to stare at the floor, much to Chiron’s bewilderment. Through this small nonverbal adjustment, Spencer represented Demetrius as having some traces of remorse – traces that emphasized his humanity just before Titus slaughtered him, which made the cannibalistic feast exponentially more revolting.
Now we turn to the character serving said banquet, Isabelle Anderson’s fascinating Titus. From her first entrance, Anderson epitomized the victorious but weary general – an old man who still possessed a commanding presence. Throughout the production, Anderson emphasized Titus’ dignity, which highlighted the ambiguity of Titus’ madness. When he killed Chiron and Demetrius, Titus did not exhibit obvious signs of mental imbalance. Rather, he retained his self-possession. This apparent sanity made Titus’ preparations for the final banquet more unnerving. It was difficult to believe that this grave Titus might be mad. However, if he were not insane, then his demeanor presented an even more disturbing, psychopathic scenario.
To these ambiguities, Anderson added another – did Titus inhabit a father’s or mother’s role? There was an almost maternal tenderness in Titus’ interactions with the injured Lavinia. For example, Titus sang a lullaby to her as they prepared the banquet. The incongruity of a singing Titus heightened the scene’s eeriness, especially since this comforting action came right before Titus served two young men to their mother in a pie. Additionally, the lullaby reminded us that Anderson was a woman playing a man, which transformed Titus’ feast into one woman’s brutality toward another woman, magnifying the horror.
The Riot Grrrls playing female roles also brought out the female-on-female cruelty that runs throughout Titus. Sarah Waisenen’s excellent performance as the vicious, sensual Tamora made the character almost unrecognizable as a fellow human being. She not only encouraged Chiron and Demetrius sons to rape Lavinia, but also triumphed in Lavinia’s suffering. When Lavinia (a heartbreaking Rana Kay) threw herself at Tamora’s feet pleading for help, Tamora pushed Lavinia away with a look of mocking disgust, as if Lavinia were subhuman. Kay, demure and quiet until this scene, screamed out Lavinia’s desperate anguish and terror so convincingly that I had to remind myself that she was acting. Therefore, when Waisenen’s Tamora laughed in response, she was terrifying indeed.
The play’s atrocities were also amplified by Jessica Moretti and Katie Dill’s traverse staging, which placed the audience in rows of banked seats on either side of the performance space. We were so close to onstage events that, to take just one example, when Esther Williamson’s Marcus found his raped and mutilated niece, we could see the tears in Williamson’s eyes. Since Williamson portrayed Marcus as the dependable voice of reason throughout the production, Marcus’ breakdown wrung tears from even my usually dry-eyed friend. It was hard for us to retain emotional distance from the characters, since the onstage outrages were literally in our faces.
Although I’ve highlighted some specific performances and features in the production, the entire ensemble acted phenomenally. Tiernan Madorno’s calculating, hate-filled Aaron combined infuriating manipulations of other characters with a strangely strong calmness. Tia Shearer’s despicable Saturninus childishly struggled with the fact that his crown was literally and figuratively too big for him. Aaryn Kopp’s honorable Bassianus was obviously the better candidate for emperor. Jenna Berk’s Lucius valiantly tried to keep his – and other people’s – emotions under control, but allowed anger to overwhelm him when he mercilessly beat the unarmed Aaron. Finally, the rest of the ensemble invested Young Lucius, Mutius, and Titus’ other sons with a touching humanity that those characters seldom achieve. Together, the Riot Grrrls played Titus as raw, nasty, and powerful, as they steered away from the dark humor that can undermine Titus. But, more than their seriousness, the Riot Grrrls’ cross-casting brought Titus’ female-on-female violence to a frightful new level. So, as I said to one of the actors, the production “tore me apart.” Her response? “Thank you. That’s what we wanted.”