Those ‘Nasty Women’ of Pigeon Creek bring Titus Andronicus to bloody life
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – There is no question that Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare’s goriest plays. The body count may be right up there with his other tragedies, but the methods of death and the amount of mutilation in the show, makes Titus a violent spectacle filled with bloodshed and acts of terror.
It is a show that explores and condemns male aggression—which makes the choice by Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company a fascinating one. They’ve chosen to present this show with an all-female cast. The genders of the characters remain the same, but we see these atrocious acts of murder and the bravado of warfare carried out by female actors.
Directed by Scott Lange, the cast of 12 undertakes this violent tragedy of revenge, politics and aggression.
Company regular Kat Hermes takes on the role of the Roman General Titus Andronicus. She brings to him an initial gravitas sprinkled with bravado. He is the triumphant warrior returning home after 40 years of warfare. He is tired, but still confident in his command, resistant to the tears and pleading of Tamora, which starts the spiral of revenge and tragedy.
Hermes captures well the full range that Andronicus goes through in this show. She is strong when strength is called for, broken when brokenness is called for and deliciously mad when madness settles upon the man who has been called to endure too much.
Shakespeare doesn’t make you wait long for the first death, one that –though it takes place off stage–is described in gory detail, leaving the audience no doubt that it was a bloody and horrible death visited upon an innocent and approved and ordered by Andronicus.
Determined to get revenge, Katherine Mayberry’s Tamora, queen of the Goths, soon gets her opportunity when she catches the eye of the emperor, placing her in a position of power and giving her the means to wreak havoc on Andronicus’ life and the lives of all those near and dear to him.
Mayberry’s Tamora is a woman who has learned how to survive in a male-dominated world—how to survive and to seize power. After her initial tears are shed to no avail, she changes her tactics. She plays the diplomat, she asks for favors, she appears outwardly servile while hiding a spine of iron. Only when she is certain she has the upper hand, such as in her interactions with Lavinia, does she reveal who she really is. Nor does she ever perform the acts of violence herself. She manipulates them, she approves them, but it is the men around her who perform the deeds.
Alyssa Farrell and Jessi Towell play Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, two murders and rapists who do her bidding and the bidding of her lover, Aaron. They are both excellent in their roles, playing well off each other, performing the parts of the villains we love to hate. They provide a great contrast to Titus’ sons in the way they move, their frequent sneering and the adolescent machoism, which the two women pull off very well.
In a more complicated role is Samara Woolfolk’s Aaron. He is also unabashedly a villain, one who brags of the havoc he wreaks and the terrors he inflicts on others. He is the brains behind the evil deeds of Chiron and Demetrius and a plotter with his lover. Most of the time, Woolfolk is able to capture this evil streak in Aaron. She plays well to the audience, letting them in on his secrets. Where she struggles is in her asides and the ends of her speeches, both of which drop off and make it difficult for the audience to hear key plot points.
One of the most sympathetic characters in the play is Kimberlee Griggs’ Lavinia, a woman who embodies the role of victim in this show, one who is subject to nearly every form of male aggression from her enemies and those who love her. Her fate is one of the play’s most problematic, especially to a modern audience who have been raised to know that one can live a fulfilling life even with a disability, even if subjected to shame which is no fault of the victim’s. Griggs breathes life into the character, making the most out of what Shakespeare gives her to work with. She is passionate and fights against her fate whilst she can and then frantic and broken when horrors are visited upon her.
Titus brother, Marcus, is played with seriousness and solemnity. He is a Roman tribune and stays by his brother’s side as horrors are visited upon him. He is played by Kathleen Bode and Bode provides an excellent contrast to Titus, especially in the later scenes when Titus flits between madness and sanity.
The entire cast does a good job of switching quickly between roles and most of the time it works well. There are only a few times when it is disconcerting to see one actor change characters. Lange is experienced with the demands of doubling and the ways to make it work for audiences.
There is a lot about “Titus Andronicus” that is unsettling. It’s not surprising that it is the play Game of Thrones, a television series that specializes in the disturbing and violent, should have borrowed from this particular Shakespeare when seeking a particularly gruesome form of revenge. Pigeon Creek compromises nothing in the show’s barbarity and violence by casting the show with all women.
In the casting choices that they make, Pigeon Creek does challenge the adage that women are the gentler sex. In this production, they are easily believable as the male aggressors and they are apt in their adoption of stereotypically male traits.