SEVERED LIMBS, PICKLED HUMAN HEADS, AND FAKE BLOOD spilling everywhere: these are but some of the tricks employed by the feminist theater troupe Swearing Jack Productions and director Natalie Novacek to modernize Shakespeares bloodiest play, Titus Andronicus, with an unconventional, all-woman cast.
The production purportedly takes inspiration from a '30s dustbowl carnival. The set prominently features a large sign painted with the words Circus Roman, which is flanked by two spinning wheels of death. Costumes and makeup, too, take after the "Greatest Show on Earth:" dark, purple eye makeup for one lady character, a leopard-print cape (think Captain Caveman) for emperor Saturninus (played by Kirstin Kuchler), whos clad like a strongman. There are also fire-breathers, Siamese twins, and a touch of magicand thats precisely why I was so disappointed when I gleaned very early on in the performance that, in spite of the promise of these novelties, Swearing Jack's rendition of Shakespeare's classic would otherwise involve a fairly straight, traditionalist approach.
Anna Shields, who plays Saturninuss younger brother Bassianus, does nicely integrate magic tricks into her act. (The character pulls coins from his ear in order to impress a lover.) But Bassianus gets knocked off early on, and the production is left from that point on without any meaningful use of carnival and circus techniques. In fact, those colorful wheels of death off to the side provide useful shorthand for how this production actually uses circus elements: the wheels sit idleas if to teasefor the vast majority of the show. As it turns out, theyre only decoration.
Even so, it was a beautiful summer evening in the parking lot of the Southside Family Charter School, where Titus is presently being staged. The plays early moments had to compete with a chorus of barking neighborhood dogs. Birds chirped and flew closely overhead. Kids were out riding their bikes. Best of all, this dark tale unwound against the backdrop of a setting sunand the neighborhood slowly quieted as the sky darkened and the plot thickened. It was a pleasant night for open-air theater.
I kept searching for the meaning behind Novaceks all-woman casting. One on hand, it appears she simply chose the thinnest, and perhaps prettiest, women to play the prominent female characters: Tituss rival, Empress Tamora, is played by petite Christine Winkler; Tituss daughter, Lavinia, is played by tall, trim Emma Gochberg. In Winklers case, despite being clothed in a gauzy, contemporary dress, her acting indulges every last Shakespearean cliché in the book: when it comes her turn to deliver a line, she floats to the center of the stage where she stands static, in the manner of an opera singer, often with her arms outstretched, reverentially to speak Shakespeares words. Unfortunately, rather than lending her role gravitas, Winkler's rendering of the character in this way left the impression of emotional vacancy. Gochberg, thankfully, didnt fall for such traps; but, of course, her character, the brutalized Lavinia, gets her tongue chopped off in short order, so she doesnt do much talking.
Part of meand it was not a small parthoped the all-woman casting would venture a political statement on the violent, male law of order. By juxtaposing these warriors and rogues with women performers, would the characters bloody acts appear all the more senseless? But alas, none in the cast camps up her masculine part. In the end, the most important thing achieved by the casting is that two excellent actresses, Noë Tallen and Marianna Caldwell, get to sink their teeth into a pair of meaty, male roles.
As Titus, the noble Roman and triumphant general, Tallen is mesmerizingshes the best thing about this show. Whether Titus is staggeringly drunk or pleading with the heavens, Tallen is unburdened by cloying affection for the text. Rather, Shakespeares prose slips off her tongue as if it is, in fact, her own. To top things off, Tallen smartly employs a throaty, graveled voicethink indie rock singeras opposed to the plummy standard of oration for Shakespeare.
Caldwell, on the other hand, plays Tamoras lover, Aarona Moor, a Black Muslim. An interesting note on Laura Leffler-McCabes costuming, not to mention the creative makeup done by the productions team: Caldwell is outfitted with a scaly mask and slathered in green face paint (think Star Trek), which successfully marks the characters otherness.
There are plenty of interesting nuances about Caldwells performance: she walks with a sexy strut and effectively employs a series of cocky facial expressions. But the best thing she does is this: Caldwell keeps moving about the performance space even while speaking her lines. And again, the voice is natural, comfortable, and rich with genuine feeling and understanding.
In fact, these two actresses so credibly inhabited their characters that this viewer was persuaded to forgive the productions failed schtick. Forget the circus and carnival tricks: these women, as it turns out, are the most magical things about the show.
What: Titus by William Shakespeare
Where: Southside Family Charter School Parking Lot
2123 Clinton Ave S. Mpls, MN 55404
(No seating is available bring your own chairs and blankets)
When: June 23, 27, 28, 29; all shows start at 7:30 pm
Tickets: $10, Box Office 612-872-4223 or [email protected]
About the writer: Christy DeSmith is a former editor at The Rake. She is also a freelance theater critic and was recently named an affiliated writer for 2007-08 by the Theatre Communications Group and American Theatre magazine.