In Japanese Kabuki theater, tricks of costuming and staging assist actors as they undergo swift transformations or make sudden revelations. It's a theme applied to bold effect in Bag&Baggage's Kabuki-inspired adaptation of Titus Andronicus, which successfully unites the exaggerated grotesquerie of Shakespeare's grisliest tragedy with the haunting grace of Kabuki movements.
For Kabuki Titus, adapter and director Scott Palmer has reduced Shakespeare's cast to six and trimmed his text to focus on the vengeful feud between the Romans and the Goths. Where the original play had nine onstage killings, a live burial and several acts of cannibalism, Palmer has wisely cut much of the gore. Yet this hardly translates to a diminished emotional charge. The dramatic focus sharpens once those sudden Kabuki-style transformations begin to occur.
The first involves the wicked goth queen Tamora (Melissa Murray) as she transforms into the character of Revenge, her black kimono whipped off to reveal an orange one underneath. But the show's most arresting moments of transformation come after the appearance of Titus' daughter Lavinia (Anne Mueller). Mueller, a former Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer, brings graceful curiosity, spellbinding artistry and painful anguish to the role. The rest of the cast also inhabits the Kabuki physicality well, most notably Ty Boice, who portrays Titus with authority of movement and speech. Murray is appropriately venomous as Tamora, hissing and twitching in ways that are almost reptilian. Grounding the 90-minute production is Tylor Neist's original score. The blend of Japanese and Western musical styles heightens the drama without overpowering the action.
Ambitious shows such as this one require considerable confidence from director and cast. Kabuki Titus does have moments of hesitation and doubt, and not all the actors are as comfortable in Shakespeare's language as Boice. But each time Mueller returns to the stage, all else seems superfluous. Her aching, silent portrayal of Lavinia is the undisputed force behind this inventive production.
SEE IT: Kabuki Titus is at the Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza, 150 E Main St., Hillsboro, 345-9590, bagnbaggage.org. 8 pm Thursday-Saturday, July 12-14.