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THEATER REVIEW Titus Andronicus
by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: William Shakespeare. At: Babes With Blades Theatre Company at City Lit, Edgewater Presbyterian Church, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets: 773-904-0391;; $22. Runs through: April 4

Long before Quentin Tarantino, David Cronenberg and Mehron Squirt Blood, there was Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare's attempt to cash in on the fashion for lurid sensationalism selling tickets in 1593. Featuring a revenge-driven plot cobbled together from the gorier episodes in Greek myths, this tale of filial perversion and misguided loyalties delivers a dozen murders ( not counting warring soldiers and two unfortunate messengers ), punitive amputation, cannibalism, rape, torture, suicide and enough frame-ups and double-crosses for a conspiracy-theory conference.

The danger with entertainment serving up atrocity after atrocity is that audiences eventually acclimate to the shock of witnessing severed body parts exhibited as victors' trophies, and demand more than faceless video-game violence. To be sure, fight designer Libby Beyreis supplies plenty of the combat expertise constituting the Babes With Blades ensemble's stock-in-trade for nearly three decades ( and collectors will note the Ghurka knives favored by this troupe ), but what most invigorates this all-female adaptation is the conceptual savvy brought by guest director Janice L. Blixt—a 14-year Chicago Theater veteran and current Artistic Director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival—to the rarely performed tragedy.

Although significantly larger than the facilities previously housing the itinerant Babes, the City Lit stage could never be called spacious. Nevertheless, Blixt has instructed her cast to discharge their duties with an energy and scope scaled to boundaries wider than those of their actual quarters—a choice mandating copious opportunities for sidelong glances, covert sneers, full-throated rants, agonized shrieks, teeth-gnashing, foot-stamping and eye-rolling, accompanied by the uninhibited physicality that comes of actors long-experienced at working together. Purists might complain that this pushes Shakespeare precariously close to graphic-novel caricature, but the General Titus and his kin dwell in a universe where passion rules, and contemplative soliloquies such as those found in, say, Hamlet have no place here.

Such extravagance risks spinning out of control, but the professional polish Blixt's guidance brings to this unigender production ( the pronouns are feminized, and the wardrobe given a futuristic Eastern Europe flavor, but otherwise the text remains intact ) includes phrasing and enunciation executed with a deft alacrity rendering the progress of the doomed Andronicii coherent for every moment of the fast-paced two and a half hours it takes for all characters to get their just deserts. You may see loftier interpretations of this horror-movie family drama, but never one as immediately accessible.

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