Let’s just say it: The Riot Grrrls are taking a fierce bite out of “Titus Andronicus,” Shakespeare’s grisly revenge tragedy. The Riot Grrrls are the all-female wing of the Taffety Punk Theatre Company, performing one Shakespearean play a year with nary a man in sight. Currently, they’re injecting heart and horror into one of the Bard’s least-liked plays.
The problem with “Titus” is that it runs on the shock value of revenge that blows hot and blows cold but is always in the wind. Slashed throats and hacked hands are only the top of a menu of carnage. In fact, if you know “Titus” at all, the first thing you think of probably isn’t the title character, a noble but by-the-book general, or his nemesis, Tamora, Queen of the Goths. More likely, it’s the cannibalism.
Director Lise Bruneau doesn’t temper the gore, but she also doesn’t spurt blood up and down the small Capitol Hill Arts Workshop stage just for Tarantino-like kicks. (In fact, the blood effects are decidedly old-school and low-tech.) A good deal of this swaggering yet sensitive production’s terror is funneled through the affecting performance of Rana Kay as Lavinia, Titus’s daughter. When Lavinia is set upon by Tamora’s punkish sons, the struggling, magnetic Kay plays the violence as real.
As that cruelty unfurls, the vein of pity that “Titus” suddenly strikes is rich. It carries the show, even if elsewhere the production is perplexingly dry. That’s particularly the case with Isabelle Anderson’s commanding but largely emotionless turn as Titus. Anderson has real presence, and she is a clear and generally sharp speaker of verse. But her elevated poetics don’t send the character toward the edges of sanity or of heartbreak, even after the torture of his daughter. (“His” is correct, as Anderson plays Titus: The Riot Grrrls don’t upend character genders or pronouns here.)
Tia Shearer’s twitchy, hot-headed version of Saturninus, the Roman emperor who tries to claim Lavinia as a wife but then impetuously weds the prisoner Tamora (shocking!), is aggressive, yet perhaps too mired in schoolyard bluster. Cooler by far is Tiernan Madorno as Aaron, the Moor who stokes the engine of mayhem at every possible turn. Aaron is an Iago, and Madorno lies and manipulates with dastardly calm.
Sara Waisanen, her black gown cut low and her long blond hair looking wild, cuts a mean and witchy figure as Tamora, while Amanda Forstrom and Teresa Spencer effectively fling themselves about like rampaging thugs as Tamora’s vicious sons. Design-wise, these Goths are marked by thin black streaks on their faces, and the dark, slightly spooky environment created by Jessica Moretti and Katie Dill makes brief but stunning use of a black wall where a message gets scrawled in chalk.
But the project is about acting, of course. And as usual, Bruneau and the Riot Grrrls win the argument — is there an argument? — that women can play the range of Shakespearean parts they traditionally don’t get to play.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Lise Bruneau. Lights, Brittany Diliberto; costumes, Kimberly Parkman, sound, Palmer Heffernan. About two hours and 20 minutes. Through Oct. 26 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 seventh St. SE. Tickets: $15. Call 800-838-3006 or visit taffetypunk.com.