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Many literary critics consider "Titus Andronicus" Shakespeare's worst play. It's an early play and his first attempt at the tragic form that culminated in the singular brilliance of "Hamlet" and "King Lear," plays whose poetry and insights drove its overwrought predecessor into obscurity. And it was highly influenced by the popularity of revenge tragedies like Thomas Kyd's "The Spanish Tragedy" and Christopher Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta," with which Shakespeare ever the showman was trying to compete.
But the cycle of revenge and retribution in "Titus Andronicus" is so unrelenting and remorseless, and its emotions are so over the top, it is difficult for modern audiences to take seriously. So why try? Instead, give it a new, zany twist, and that's exactly what Pinnacle Acting Company does stylishly and successfully in its current production.
Director L.L. West has chosen to give the play an all-female cast and set it in the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility for Women. The result is an amoral, anarchic sensibility that works amazingly well with the original material. There's also an intriguing subtext: Why would women prisoners want to perform a murderous and bloody play like "Titus Andronicus," and why would a prison let them? Does it indulge their attraction to violence or act as a therapeutic alternative?
No matter. This production vacillates deftly between melodrama and farce and is highly entertaining whichever way it goes. Two prison guards, smart-mouthed Bull I (Vicki Pugmire) and her straightforward comrade, Bull II (Carlie Young), oversee the production, set up individual scenes and provide sardonic commentary: "The deeper all go, the darker we go, as deep and dark as you can imagine," Bull I informs us in the forest scenes. They also gleefully keep score of the murders and mutilated body parts on a blackboard.
The set and hodgepodge of costumes, coordinated by Rachel Kimber, are understandably makeshift "You're going to have to use your imaginations," Bull I tells us and Harrison Corthell's murky lighting, full of blues and greens and dark-edged spotlighting, creates a space where dark deeds can be done. Katelyn Limber's eclectic sound design features wildly upbeat music and lots of thunder. Emilio Casillas' "blood" adds an appropriately gory touch. Watch for West's clever staging of hunting dogs and the pit Titus' two sons fall into in the forest.
The cast assembles some of the strongest actors in town, and they have a field day romping through Shakespeare's excruciatingly melodramatic dialogue. April Fossen's Titus is a volcano of volatile and vindictive emotions, a perfect foil for Betsy West's sensible, voice-of-reason Marcus. The two collide and collaborate seamlessly in their scenes together. Melanie Nelson's sensual, wily, treacherous Tamora struts around the stage while Dee-Dee Darby Duffin orchestrates and celebrates cruelty as the villainous Aaron. Tamara Howell creates an autocratic, compassionless Saturninus, in sharp contrast to Holly Fowers' stalwart, valiant Lucius. Anne Louise Brings is touchingly resourceful as the victimized Lavinia, and Ali Lente and Alyssa Franks exude macho malevolence as Tamora's diabolical sons.
"Titus Andronicus" has received a flurry of productions recently. Perhaps that's not surprising in a climate where "Game of Thrones" is one of the most popular shows on television. In any event, this production reveals that the play can also be fun. Go and have a good time!
Director L.L. West gives Shakespeare's moldy, oldie tragedy an innovative and entertaining new look.
When • Reviewed on June 9; plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. through June 25, with a matinee June 25 at 2 p.m.
Where • Dumke Black Box Theatre, Jewett Center for the Performing Arts, Westminster College, 1250 E. 1700 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $18; $15 for students and seniors; discounts for groups of 10 or more with advance notice; pinnacleactingcompany.org
Running time • 2 ½ hours (including an intermission)