TITUS ANDRONICUS

City Lit Theatre, Chicago IL
 
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"Directed by Janice L. Blixt, this production is equal parts campy, sadistic, heartfelt and, most of all, fun." - New City Stage

"What most invigorates this all-female adaptation is the conceptual savvy brought by guest director Janice L. Blixt to the rarely performed tragedy."

- Windy City Times

2/20/15-4/12/15

Babes With Blades

 

Review - Alex Huntsberger, New City Stage

RECOMMENDED

 

Sitting in the audience waiting for Babes with Blades’ all-female production of “Titus Andronicus” to begin, I did what any audience member does and took in the set, designed here by Carolyn Voss. I thought to myself “Hmm, grey stone columns, red Nazi-ish banners, long sheets of plastic painted to look like marble… they’re going with a ‘fascism’ interpretation. Okeedoke.”

 

However two-and-a-half hours later, as the final quarts of blood were being spilt, I took a look again and saw something else. I saw a serial killer’s basement. (The long sheets of plastic give off a very “Christian Bale explaining to Jared Leto the utter sublimity of Huey Lewis and the News” vibe.) And you know what? For a play that has the murderous glee of a “Call of Duty” game with the body count to match, that’s about right.

 

Directed by Michigan Shakespeare Festival artistic director Janice L. Blixt, this production is equal parts campy, sadistic, heartfelt and, most of all, fun. A few actresses play multiple roles, which in “Titus Andronicus” also means dying multiple deaths. By the middle of the second act, when their throats are slit and you see them staring forlornly out past the audience, you can almost detect a look of “Oh, not this again.” Libby Beyreis is the violence designer.

 

Amy E. Harmon stars as the titular Roman general. She brings a fine, bug-eyed severity to the role, making Titus’ descent from zealotry to madness merely a matter of degrees. Kimberly Logan meanwhile gives Harmon a worthy foil as the Goth Queen Tamora and Janice Kulka offers both sweetness and a sly intelligence as Titus’ beloved but (very) ill-fated daughter Lavinia.

 

But the standout performance belongs to Diana Coates as Aaron. Whenever she is onstage she holds your attention. Coates’ confidence and wit and restrained bemusement at the chaos all around her draw a portrait of Aaron that makes him seem, somewhat surprisingly, like the most well-adjusted character in the play. Granted, she’s evil as hell. But in a world as twisted as this one, she’s right in her element.

 

 

Shakespeare In Blood - Drew Wancket, Chicago Stage Standard

 

In the pantheon of works of William Shakespeare, there is a wide range of works. There are the great tragedies like “Hamlet” and “King Lear.” There are his comedies such as “Much ado About Nothing” and “Twelfth Night.” There are also the history plays like “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” There are a few plays that refuse to be put into any one category. These works tend to be less well known and often misunderstood. “Titus Andronicus” plays at City Lit Theatre, 1020 W Bryn Mawr in Chicago. The show falls into this last category. The work has a number of oddities about it. It is believed to be Shakespeare’s first drama. It is also believed to be one of the few he wrote with a collaborator. In addition, unlike his other Roman plays, it is completely fictional. The aspect of this play that has probably caused it the most harm- and has kept it from being more widely known- is the incredible amount of violence it contains.

 

The play contains acts of murder, prolicide, regicide, rape, cannibalism, body mutilation, and other general acts of violence. Audiences in Shakespeare’s time and future audiences have generally found the violence to be over the top. However, there is one way to address the darkness in this play and go even more over the top. That approach is to go straight at it, and let the blood splatter and heads roll. That is precisely what Babe’s with Blades Theater Company has done with “Titus Andronicus.”

 

The play centers around Titus Andronicus, a Roman general who has returned victorious from a ten year war with the Goths. He brings as his prize the Goth queen, Tamora, along with her sons, along and Aaron, a moor, and the queen’s secret lover. Upon his return, Titus is offered the throne, but refuses. Instead he supports Saturninus, son of the late emperor, despite the fact that Saturninus’ brother, Bassianus is betrothed to Titus’s daughter, Lavinia. The newly crowned emperor ends up marrying Tamora instead (after Titus kills one of his own sons). As a result, we have a good, old fashioned revenge story between Titus and Tamora. Along the way, Levinia is raped and mutilated, Bassianus is murdered, Aaron plots several murders, and Tamora unknowingly consumes her own children.

 

The architect of all this carnage is Janice L. Blixt. Janice is the Artistic Director of the Michigan Shakespeare company, who was wisely brought in to direct this piece. Her familiarity and comfort level with Shakespeare’s style helps every actor. No one is intimidated by the text. Some of her best directing she has done involved finding genuine, darkly humorous moments amidst all the blood. Also, because Babes with Blades is an all-female company, all the characters are played by women. All the characters are also women. This leads to some very interesting views on rape and love. The famous rape and torture of Lavinia takes on new light when women are committing the acts. The director does wisely to point these things out, but not make them the focal point of the piece. Violence Designer Libby Beyreis has crafted some excellent combat scenes and made good use of generous amounts of stage blood. Persons sitting in the first few rows are warned about accidental blood splatter.

 

Standouts in the cast include Amy E. Harmon as Titus and Kimberly Logan as Tamora. Amy does well to carry the show and I would have liked to have seen more of Kimberly on stage. Janice Kulka had the enviably task of spending most of the show unable to speak or use her hands. That she became one of the funniest characters is a tribute to both her and, the show. Diana Coates bristled as Aaron, the Moorish outcast and completely unrepentant killer.

 

I commend Babes with Blades for tackling one of Shakespeare’s most difficult and bloody plays with such enthusiasm and humor. While they have made several minor changes to the story, they did a good job of interpreting the original text. If you have never seen this lesser known entry in the canon, this is a good introduction.

 

 

Review - Christine Malcolm, Edge Chicago

 

Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" is bloody, brutal exploration of kinship, conquest and revenge. Babes With Blades Theatre Company's (BWBTC) all-female version of it, directed by Janice L. Blixt, is a superb rendition of it. 

 

The City Lit space where the production is staged can be challenging, but the design here is so well crafted that the world shifts from sprawling battlefield to intimate family tomb seamlessly. Carolyn Voss drapes the walls in translucent grey material that can easily suggest naturally hewn rock or the clean lines of a public building as needed.

 

Scarlet banners accent the grey backdrop, each with a distinct device in black. These flank columnar shelves, crowded with ceramic urns. These represent the tombs of various families and serve as a reminder of the toll war and ambition have already taken, even as the body count climbs. 

 

Kimberly G. Morris's costume design provides the visual unity necessary to keep the familial alliances straight. For the Caesars and the Andronicii, she builds on the foundation of a standard battle dress uniform that, deliberately or not, evokes the recent "Battlestar Galactica," another cultural product that productively reimagines gender roles in a military context. 

 

Morris adds jackets over the top of these and ties together the different roles in and around the court with color. For the Goths, Morris uses earth tones and more jagged lines for the costumes, together with leather accents and eye makeup that borders on warpaint. 

 

Despite the company's emphasis on "stage combat to place women and their stories center stage," large-scale violence (design by Libby Beyreis and Assistant Violence Designer Maureen Yasko) here is limited to an impressive opening scene. In this, lighting and smoke convey chaos, while costumes and distinct fighting styles keep the different factions obvious for the audience. 

 

In terms of the single-gender cast, for the most part, the production wisely declines to "explain." Sons are simply referred to as daughters, brothers as sisters, and so on. Tamora is the wife and co-empress of Saturninus as well as lover of Aaron the Moor and mother of her child. In these cases, the matter-of-fact presentation serves simply to ask the audience to examine why it is and how it is that bodily form ought to matter to the interactions. When paired with excellent performances, the obvious and interesting answer is: It simply doesn't. 

 

In the case of Lavinia, the waters are not quite as skillfully navigated. Early on in the play when Bassanius conspires to kidnap Lavinia (whom Saturninus has set aside to marry Tamora), it's not quite clear that Lavinia is a prize she's stealing from her sister, the newly crowned empress. Similarly when Tamora's daughters rape and maim Lavinia, it isn't quite clear that bastard offspring are a potential consequence. In the end, though, these are two moments of minor confusion and a plodding attempt at exposition would likely have been a greater sin. 

 

Furthermore, the aftermath of the assault on Lavinia unfolds into one of the most powerful sequences in the production. As Marcus Andronicus, Erin Myers is easily the quietest, most restrained performance in the play. As she tends to Lavinia, her long soliloquy is so subdued that it almost seems pathological. 

 

In the productive disorientation of a de-gendered moment, I, at least found myself thinking about the choice in gendered terms. Emanating from a male body, the speech is unbearably patronizing. From a female body, I wondered if the Blixt and Myers were concerned that anything bigger would come off as overly shrill. 

 

Ultimately, though, the muted emotional response and the emphasis on active caregiving (appropriate to both characters' roles as "medics") have less to do with any notion of what's gender appropriate. They're far more related to the beautiful payoff when patient, level-headed Marcus at last erupts into violent anger, demanding that Titus act at last and it's the bombastic general who lays out a cunning, protracted, and terrible strategy. 

 

Amy E. Harmon is terrifying and heartbreaking in the title role. Blixt and the rest of the cast seem to structure their performances around her portrayal, which is highly effective. Elyse Dawson plays Lucius as both understudy and comeuppance for Titus. They spark off one another in every conflict, and their final reconciliation feels perfectly unfinished. Janice Kulka mirrors Titus's madness as well as the last vestiges of her softness in a role that could too easily have become either laughable or melodramatic. 

 

Megan Schemmel (Saturninus) and Kimberly Logan (Tamora) are almost cartoonish in their villainy and hyper sexuality, which is not a criticism. In a play where everyone is arguably mad, theirs is the madness of entitlement. The two provide some welcome, much needed black comedy, along with some inspired, offbeat choices like having one actor (Sara Gorsky) play all of the daughters of Titus (save Lavinia) who lose their lives during the play, as well as the messenger who literally gets killed. 

 

As Aaron, Diana Coates is mesmerizing. The role, of course, is deeply problematic in true its racism. Aaron is baselessly (so far as the audience knows), unrelentingly evil. But Coates is so appealing without ever once being apologetic that one can't help hoping there's another side to her story.

 

 

Review - Mary Shen Barnidge, Windy City Times

 

Long before Quentin Tarantino, David Cronenberg and Mehron Squirt Blood, there was Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare's attempt to cash in on the fashion for lurid sensationalism selling tickets in 1593. Featuring a revenge-driven plot cobbled together from the gorier episodes in Greek myths, this tale of filial perversion and misguided loyalties delivers a dozen murders ( not counting warring soldiers and two unfortunate messengers ), punitive amputation, cannibalism, rape, torture, suicide and enough frame-ups and double-crosses for a conspiracy-theory conference.

 

The danger with entertainment serving up atrocity after atrocity is that audiences eventually acclimate to the shock of witnessing severed body parts exhibited as victors' trophies, and demand more than faceless video-game violence. To be sure, fight designer Libby Beyreis supplies plenty of the combat expertise constituting the Babes With Blades ensemble's stock-in-trade for nearly three decades ( and collectors will note the Ghurka knives favored by this troupe ), but what most invigorates this all-female adaptation is the conceptual savvy brought by guest director Janice L. Blixt—a 14-year Chicago Theater veteran and current Artistic Director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival—to the rarely performed tragedy.

 

Although significantly larger than the facilities previously housing the itinerant Babes, the City Lit stage could never be called spacious. Nevertheless, Blixt has instructed her cast to discharge their duties with an energy and scope scaled to boundaries wider than those of their actual quarters—a choice mandating copious opportunities for sidelong glances, covert sneers, full-throated rants, agonized shrieks, teeth-gnashing, foot-stamping and eye-rolling, accompanied by the uninhibited physicality that comes of actors long-experienced at working together. Purists might complain that this pushes Shakespeare precariously close to graphic-novel caricature, but the General Titus and his kin dwell in a universe where passion rules, and contemplative soliloquies such as those found in, say, Hamlet have no place here.

 

Such extravagance risks spinning out of control, but the professional polish Blixt's guidance brings to this unigender production ( the pronouns are feminized, and the wardrobe given a futuristic Eastern Europe flavor, but otherwise the text remains intact ) includes phrasing and enunciation executed with a deft alacrity rendering the progress of the doomed Andronicii coherent for every moment of the fast-paced two and a half hours it takes for all characters to get their just deserts. You may see loftier interpretations of this horror-movie family drama, but never one as immediately accessible.