Upstart Crow’s Titus Andronicus: In Which We Learn That Women Can Also Be Vicious

[John Ulman] Amy Thone plays the titular role in Upstart Crow’s production of TITUS ANDRONICUS

The Upstart Crow Collective began its existence as a theater company back in 2006 for the express purpose of providing local women actors, professional and otherwise, a greater opportunity to work opposite each other–as opposed to competing for the small number of available roles a given play would have. This aim is achieved by doing all-female productions of Shakespeare’s typically male-heavy plays, like their critically-lauded inaugural production of King John, for example. Their production of Titus Andronicus is playing through October 7th.

Of Titus Andronicus it is known that it was once one of Billy Shakes’ least produced plays, because it is one of his more visceral, brute-force works. Its metered language is geared toward the barbarity of its story, and contains little of lyrical beauty usually associated with the playwright–that is to say, it is lyrical, but vicious instead of beatific. To give you an idea of the play’s potency, a recent controversial German adaptation was named Die Schändung (Violation). It is the work of Shakespeare during his crowd-pleasing days; its pulpy purpose is to rouse the rabble.

In Seattle, the play has been produced at least six times since Julie Taymor’s 1999 film adaptation; there’s been a faithful production at ACT, it was turned into a Western by Balagan Theater, deconstructed by the folks at Washington Ensemble, and produced with irreverent gusto as part of GreenStage’s Hard Bard series. Of these, the GreenStage production has been the one that’s been most memorable; there is something so grotesquely over the top about the events that take place in Titus that lends itself to the sort of horror slapstick usually associated with early Peter Jackson and grand guignol. GreenStage’s brazen-beery-testosterone-laden-outdoor-theater approach was a good fit for the script.

The story’s set up in brief: Titus Andronicus (Amy Thone) has returned to Rome from the battlefield, where he has emerged victorious over the Visigoths. He has brought along the Visigoth Queen, Tamora (Ki Gottberg), and her sons as prisoners of war; before turning them over to the Roman leaders, Titus extracts some revenge for his sons lost during battle by executing two of Tamora’s beloved boys. Unbeknownst to Titus, the emperor has died and has left two legitimate heirs: the affable Bassianus (Rhonda Zoikowski), and the scheming Saturninus (Kelly Kitchens), who is jealous of Titus’ popularity. The Roman senators leave it to Titus to decide who should rule; Titus, having just returned home exhausted from battle, wants nothing to do with it. In a careless moment, he chooses Saturninus, who then names Titus’ daughter, Lavinia (Brenda Joyner), as his bride, knowing full well that she is already in love with Bassianus. When the two run away together, Saturninus takes Tamora as his bride, and she sees this as an opportunity to exact revenge. This all takes place in the first ten minutes of the play–from here, the proceedings take a decidedly venal and bloody turn.

Aesthetically speaking, Upstart Crow Collective’s production of Titus is the direct antithesis of GreenStage’s approach. Where Hard Bard’s Titus was loud and lurid, Upstart Crow’s production is methodical and restrained. This isn’t to suggest that one approach is preferable over the other; however, by adopting a largely mirthless approach, what the text gains in bleak portent it loses in the sadistic glee and gallows humor of the language. A black comedy becomes a dire revenge entertainment with a small angry reprieve at the end, which is typically how this play is produced–director Rosa Joshi and her cast take it further into the darkness.

At this point, it becomes impossible to discuss the various particulars of Joshi’s production without taking the gender of those involved into consideration. One of the intended goals of Upstart Crow’s agenda, as stated above, is to establish that women are every bit as capable of portraying Shakespeare’s meatier roles as men are. Women, the argument goes, can be just as susceptible to ambition, greed, hubris, just as duplicitous, just as violent as men are. It would be easy to simply accept this with a shrug, but this does nothing to alter the fact that the odds against the women of this production being cast as Hamlet, or Lear are slim. One would think that once given the chance, the artists involved would do everything they could to make their characters completely their own.

Certainly the subtler (more female) approach pays off in numerous scenes. The scene depicting Lavinia’s fate at the hands of Tamora’s sons, Chiron (Peggy Gannon) and Demetrius (Sarah Harlett), is chilling without getting into the more graphic implications of that scene; the mechanics surrounding the various bloodlettings that take place are reasonably clever. All of these effects, however, are slightly deflated by the company’s decision to have the women portray their characters as men.

When Theater Schmeater put on its production of Reservoir Dolls (a cross-gendered take on Reservoir Dogs) in Spring 2011, the critical reaction was decidedly mixed. While some felt that the production as a pulpy piece of feminist empowerment, others opined that the novelty factor was just a gimmick to thinly disguise what was an exact replica of the movie with the genders switched. (For the record, your correspondent fell into the former camp–a verdict he stands by, but revisits regularly for numerous reasons.)

Whenever a production decides to tackle a script in this manner, it raises the question of “Why?” Why do an all female production of Titus? “Because we can,” is just one of the answers available out there, but it does not address the corollary question: What does it illuminate? It could be argued that Joshi and company are aiming for a Brecht-ian distancing effect–which would be supported by the casting and the bloodletting mechanics mentioned earlier–but that would imply more of a tacit acknowledgement of the scenario than what is evident here. It leaves one wondering how a female Titus would have reacted to the abuses visited upon her daughter: how would that inform her immediate scripted actions afterward? Would it be different, and how so? Should it? Could it? Might these questions be better answered in an adaptation? These questions remain unsolved for the time being.

Ultimately, Upstart Crow delivers what is, in essence, a straightforward telling of Titus Andronicus with the genders switched. The cast is filled with very talented actors giving very traditional performances of their roles, which isn’t anything to knock. In fact, it is basically a solid production. All of the elements are in place. It just leaves a few unanswered questions and missed opportunities in its wake.

Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30p.m., Sundays at 4:30p.m.; through October 7 // Lee Center for the Arts, on the corner of E Marion St. & 12th Avenue // $20 suggested donation, reservations at Brown Paper Tickets or by calling 800-838-3006