A review of the upstart crow collective's all-female production of "Titus Andronicus," at Seattle's Lee Center for the Arts through Oct. 7, 2012.

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The Seattle troupe upstart crow has mounted a second all-women version of a William Shakespeare play. And in pursuit of beefy roles usually denied to females, they’re not taking an easy way out.

They’ve bulked up for the Shakespearean equivalent of a slasher movie: “Titus Andronicus.” And they don’t stint on the stage gore or the sheer horror or the bleak humor therein.

Rosa Joshi’s mounting at the Lee Center for the Arts (on the Seattle University campus) is for the most part riveting, cogent — and not a constant reminder that those are women in male masquerade, doing the murdering, raping, cannibalizing and other barbarous deeds in an orgy of blood, lust and bloodlust.

Choreographed by Joshi with sophisticated sprawl on an open stage divided into locales by Geoff Korf’s insidiously acute lighting scheme, this “Titus” has a lean, sinewy, spooky feel about it.

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That befits Shakespeare’s Jacobean-style drama, which is less of a tragedy than a parable of how not to govern an empire, or make peace with its enemies.

The Bard’s plunge into the travails and sins of the Roman general Titus Andronicus and company can be campy, clunky. But it makes some points that continually need making about the utter futility of cyclical vengeance.

Some critics across the centuries have tarred it as one of Shakespeare’s worst plays, given its crudity and the cruelty of the action. It also was one of his most popular works, for an audience that today might like to revel in the violence of “Savages” or the new Batman flick.

The plot is rigged with spiraling tensions and many violent tripwires.

When Titus (Amy Thone) returns to ancient Rome victorious from a war with the Goths, he rubs it in by executing sons of the Goth queen Tamora (Ki Gottberg), in reprisal for the war deaths of his kin.

Deaf to the repercussions, encased in triumphal arrogance, Titus is a patsy for the counter-revenge of Tamora and her ruthless Moorish lover, Aaron (Nike Imoru).

In league with Tamora’s scuzzy, squabbling, surviving sons, they destroy Titus’ lovely daughter Lavinia (Brenda Joyner) with rape and gruesome violence — not enacted onstage, but terrible to even imagine.

After yet more mayhem, Titus snaps. And with calculating delirium evens the score — on the whole Goth clan and on the sleazy young Roman emperor who was complicit in their deeds.

Thone’s Titus is so stoic and disengaging in the show’s first half that his segue into manic grief feels abrupt rather than cumulative. But Thone is vivid and heartbreaking in the latter half, in ways that suggest how much Titus was Shakespeare’s warm-up for another tragic patriarchal figure, King Lear.

All the cast labors at a high level here. They vigorously embody men without butching up or other exaggeration. As for the women, Gottberg is allowed some lip-smacking campery in her seductive manipulations, in counterpoint to the virginal grace and then post-trauma agony of Joyner’s Lavinia.

The discovery here is Imoru as Aaron. This veteran British actress gives a perfectly assured account of an repentant yet engaging villain (much like Iago in Shakespeare’s “Othello”) whose sarcastic asides bring bleak comic relief — and whose charred heart is nearly, if not entirely, devoid of love.

A shout-out too to the superb sound design of Dominic CodyKramers.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com