Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s all-female Riot Grrrls tackle one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays, Titus Andronicus. Director Lise Bruneau has created a streamlined production with a single table for furniture (plus a couple of very important pies), and builds great tension through this amazing piece. The space at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop is flexible and Set Designers Jessica Moretti and Katie Dill have chosen to divide the audience into four parts and leave a long stretch of stage bare, with only a tree growing into and out of the walls as decoration. The stark set works. Lights by Brittany Diliberto and sound by Palmer Hefferan do the heavy lifting to move things along…and signal who’s going down next.
Taffety Punk is a dynamic local theater company that focuses on their ensemble and making theater as affordable and accessible as possible. Yet again, they succeed both at updating and streamlining a difficult tragedy, while still delivering a topnotch production. They prove that you don’t need an endless budget or a complicated set to put on a hugely powerful play, and in fact this is probably much closer to how the original was performed with stylized fights and simple sets. The costumes by Kimberly Parkman are modern with a mercenary army in camouflage and Titus in an excellent leather breastplate. Makeup cleverly delineates Goth from Roman.
One of the main reasons Riot Grrls exists is to give women access to the meatier roles that were and are reserved for men. This is not drag and they never wink that the cast is female; they take the roles seriously, playing them straight…so to speak. But the choice of play is particularly poignant given the gender of the actors. Unlike the Richards or some other tragedies, Titus Andronicus is a play about women and the power they hold or not. The action starts when Tamora’s first born son is killed by Titus and she spends the rest of the play seeking a terrible revenge, including orchestrating the rape and worse of Titus’s daughter Lavinia.
The themes and betrayals Shakespeare grapples with in this play are, unfortunately, as relevant and modern as ever. Bruneau has capitalized on that fact, giving the play an urgency unlike many other classical revivals; it feels like this Titus belongs in the genre of thriller or horror than traditional tragedy. Due to the arrangement of the theater with the audience facing each other, part of the strength of this production is getting to watch the rest of the audience react to the shocking twists and turns.
Of course, at its heart, are the Riot Grrls. Villain and hero, Aaron and Titus are the two brilliant and charismatic leaders of the production. Isabelle Anderson (Titus Andronicus) seems born to play this Roman general and revels the moral ambiguity and questionable sanity of her character. They just do not make villains like Aaron the Moon anymore; he takes deranged to a whole new level and Tiernan Madorno plays him with verve and evil.
Tia Shearer (Saturninus), the inept emperor, is delightfully slimy and weak. Politicians haven’t changed much, it seems. Teresa Spencer and Amanda Forstrom (Demetrius and Chiron) play two evil minions well and have perhaps the most physically difficult parts in the play. Rana Kay and Sara Waisenen (Lavinia and Tamora) play the two women of the piece. Lavinia is nearly an impossible role and Kay throws herself into her scenes to heartbreaking effect. Waisenen is great fun to watch in her scheming evil plans. All of the cast transition quickly from Goth to Roman, from Titus’s army to imperial guards seamlessly and tackle the iambic pentameter with ease. The coordination of all of these elements is truly impressive.
This play is produced far less often than the bard’s hilarious comedies or some of the more heroic tragedies, which is a shame because it is still so powerful.
Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s Titus Andronicus is smart and shattering, and is not to be missed.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Titus Andronicus plays through October 26, 2013 at Taffety Punk Theatre Company at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop – 545 7th Sreet, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 355-9441, or purchase them online.