Bare Theatre

@ Common Ground Theatre

4815B Hillsborough Road, Durham


Through Nov. 21

The questions are rarely pursued in regional theater and our culture at large: What are the limits to a woman’s anger? In what ways might a women-only culture functionor not function? And how would a women’s theater company explore these and similar questions on stage?

Bare Theatre‘s all-female production of Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s goriest dramas, provides us with only partial answers, marred in places by clear miscalculations. But one conclusion is obvious: This group should not disband after its last show next weekend.

Far too rarely have we seen similar enterprises. Jules Odendahl-James brought her small feminist company Bold Maids with her when she moved to the area in 1997, the same year Cheryl Chamblee and Tamara Kissane began Both Hands Theatre Company as a two-woman troupe. Actor Mary Rowland once played a memorable Hamlet at Theatre in the Park.

But more often, women have complained of narrow niche roles allotted by unimaginative playwrights and directors. Small wonder, then, that an all-female troupe taking on Shakespeare should spark enthusiasm similar to that surrounding a new black theater company, Black Ops, earlier this year. Both are intent on addressing significant gaps in opportunity for artists and the range of stories seen on regional stages.

But we were alarmed to read an apologia in director Heather Strickland’s candid program notes. In her opening paragraph, she conceded that the production process, and not the performance, would be “the best part of the creation.”

Having seen the show, I agreebut that is no snide dismissal. Using Shakespeare’s script to target the ways women undermine and attack one another in our culture, the group found that, in order to succeed, relationships and production structures that escaped that dynamic had to be built. In a finite production schedule, that inquiry took time away from character development, scene work, polish and tech. But it’s important: You can’t raise an audience’s awareness without raising the cast’s first.

Titus Andronicus has obvious difficulties in its current state. The damage and fatigue of 40 years of hard service as a Roman soldier weren’t perceptible in the performance of Rebecca Blum, who seemed a generation off in the title role.

And other consequences of the casting were not fully considered. At the start of Shakespeare’s tale of political treachery and bloody retribution, Titus returns to Rome in triumph, with troops and four daughters who served together as soldiers during a 10-year war against the Goths. But by that math, most of those cast as Titus’ daughters would have likely been in grade school when that campaign began. None of them, with the occasional exception of Brett Stegall’s Mutius, displayed much in the way of military bearing.

Indeed, Aneisha Montague’s arresting Aaron was the only character who seemed to have ever seen active duty. To Strickland’s credit, this production does not sugarcoat the racism with which ancient Romeand Shakespeare’s Englandgreets Montague’s Moorish character. But neither does it solve the conundrum of a female warrior impregnating the venomous queen of the Goths, Tamora (a worthy Maegan Mercer-Bourne), with a child whose skin color ultimately betrays both of their infidelities.

Katie Barrett and Hannah Murphy were effective and refreshing comic relief in the roles of Tamora’s quarrelsome daughters, Chiron and Demetrius. In Katie Moorehead’s post-punk costumes, they’re a pair of riot grrrl wannabes whose toxic masculine posturing is routinely deflated by the truly toxic Aaron.

The engines of pathos, cunning and revenge engage us, although trigger warnings would suit the graphically depicted fate of Titus’ daughter, Lavinia (Leslie Castro). Kacey Reynolds Schedler was stalwart as the tribune Marcus, Titus’ sister. And the piquant opening political frame of a Roman election echoes our current presidential debates. But with the groundwork these artists had to lay now behind them, what we most want to see is their next production.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Fire and ice”