As far as Shakespeare goes, “Titus Andronicus” is somewhat disreputable. Whether or not it is the bard’s worst play (some critics have claimed it is so bad that he couldn’t have written a word of it), it is certainly the most bloody of the thirty-nine regularly attributed to him. It is said that when the Royal Shakespeare Company tried to revive the play’s reputation in 1955 with a cast that included Lawrence Olivier, the audience laughed at moments that were intended to be cruel or tragic. The same thing happened at Babes with Blade’s all-female production of the play opening night at City Lit Theatre. Perhaps the acts of cruelty in “Titus Andronicus” are still too gratuitous to be taken seriously even today. Perhaps the decision to make all the characters female (not just have them played by females) pushed willing suspension of disbelief too far (one of the sub-plots of the play is that Aaron the Moor has secretly “fathered” a love-child by Tamora, Queen of the Goths). Whatever the case, the director, cast, and even playwright, can hardly be held responsible for an inappropriate audience reaction, however unsettling, and despite some shortcomings beyond the problems mentioned above (which I’m not dismissing), there are plenty of reasons to see “Babes with Blade’s” production of this infamous play.
Usually, I don’t reveal the entire plot in a review, especially a play’s ending, but in the case of “Titus Andronicus “, it’s important that everyone know what they are getting into before they decide whether or not they really want to attend a performance. Titus (Amy E. Harmon) returns victorious to Rome with Tamora (Kimberly Logan), Queen of the Goth’s and her three daughters: Alarbus (Diana Cotes), Demetrius (Kanome Jones), and Chiron (Elaina Henderson) as captives. Titus kills the eldest, Alarbus, to “appease” her own daughter’s death in battle, framing the act in the language of pious sacrifice. In revenge, Tamora persuades her daughters Demetrius and Chiron to rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Janice Kulka) which they do before chopping off her hands and cutting out her tongue so that she cannot report what has happened.
Aaron the Moor (Diana Coates), Tamora’s secret lover, convinces the empress Saturninus (Megan Schemmel), whose election Titus supported when offered the imperial crown herself, that Titus’s daughters Quintius (Sara Gorsky) and Martius (Sara Gorsky) are responsible for raping Lavinia, and they are arrested and sentenced to death. Aaron convinces Titus that the empress will pardon her daughters in exchange for her own mutilated hand. She chops it off, and sends it, but Aaron’s was lying, and the empress merely sends the decapitated heads of Titus’s daughters along with Titus’s own hand thrown in as a bonus. In revenge, Titus’ daughter Lucius (Elyse Dawson) raises an army of Goth’s and marches on Rome. Meanwhile, Titus discovers the true perpetrators of the rape against her daughter, and feigns madness. Tamora approaches her, along with her daughter’s Chiron and Demetrius. They are dressed as the Spirits of Revenge, Murder, and Rape, and they ask her to halt the impending attack on the imperial capital in exchange for their services. Titus agrees, but when Tamora leaves, she murders Chiron and Demetrius and cooks them into a pie which she later serves to Tamora at a banquet. When the Titus reveals what she’s done, she kills Tamora, provoking her own downfall in the play’s final bloodbath.
All of this happens on stage. Combat violence is what Babes with Blades does so they tend to be really good at it, and this production capitalizes on the gore. The barbaric acts of cruelty (designed by Libby Beyreis) are not only gruesome, they also tend to be fairly realistic, and more than once I felt my stomach turn.
Under the direction of Janice L. Blixt, a veteran of Shakespearean theatre, Amy E. Harmon, Megan Schemmel, and Diana Coates give fascinating performances as Titus, Saturninus, and Aaron the Moore respectively, anchoring the play and preventing it from remaining a mere blood bath (although it certainly is that). It is a particular delight to listen to Ms. Coates deliver the Shakespearean dialogue. In her hands, Aaron the Moore makes an articulate case for evil, and at parts of the production that lag because of surprisingly clumsy blocking and somewhat lackluster performances by members of the supporting cast, she could always be relied upon to save it. Megan Schemmel was extremely stately and glamorous as an empress, and her performance alone was enough to validate the director’s choice to make the all the characters female in spite of the problems it posed for plot. Amy E. Harmon successfully pulled off cruelty and pathos in the title role, but the play never really felt like her tragedy.
“Titus Andronicus” is being produced by Babes with Blades at The City Theatre Lit Theatre located at 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago on the top floor of the Presbyterian Church. It runs through April 4th 2015 with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday’s at 3 pm except Easter weekend on which there will no performance on Sunday, but a 8 pm performance on Wednesday April 1st. Regular Tickets are $22. Senior and Student Tickets are $14. They are available at www.babeswithblades.org or by calling 773-904-0391