As much as we may hide it at dinner parties ("Of course I've read 'Coriolanus!'"), Shakespeare can be a tough nut for most of us. Especially his plays, which can inspire (oh, the beauty!) and deflate (oh, the confusion!), in equal measure.

Springs Ensemble Theatre's production of "Titus Andronicus," which runs through Aug. 7, doubles down on the challenge with Jonathan Margheim and Jenny Maloney's adaptation: In a twist on the Elizabethan tradition that requires female characters be played by men, they've lined up women in every role of this dark, male-dominated tragedy.

Which means these actors must not only master the language and dynamics of what is arguably Shakespeare's bloodiest (and some say least successful) work, but also play the opposite sex. It's a compelling conceit, though, and one so relevant today: What is the nature of gender? More to the point, does a woman inhabiting a male character expose some unexplored aspect of the testosterone-fueled "Titus"?

After winning a 10-year war with the Goths, Titus (Amy Brooks) returns to Rome with the Goth queen, Tamora (Crystal Carter), several of her sons and her lover on the down-low, Aaron (Kala Roquemore), as prisoners. Despite Tamora's pleading, Titus sacrifices one of her sons to avenge the deaths of good Romans.

That taken care of, Titus is told that the Roman people have chosen him - over royal sons Saturninus (Jillmarie Peterson) and Bassianus (Brianna G. Pilon) - to replace the dead emperor. Titus demurs, though, backing Saturninus, who immediately tries to poach his brother's betrothed, Lavinia. When that fails, he turns to the slippery Tamora for his queen.

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Tamora's thirst for revenge and its wake propels the merciless (but gently adapted) 120 minutes that follows.

Unfortunately, first-time director Maloney's "Titus" stumbles on opening night. For instance, Maloney and Max Ferguson's set is hard to suss out and unnecessarily crowds the tiny stage. Maloney's blocking sometime fails to use the space well, as in the scenes played (out of view of much of the house) at the feet of the first-row audience. The sound, too, was sometimes confusing or obscured the dense dialogue.

Film and TV have made us all experts about fight scenes and here they were awkward, perhaps highlighting the female cast's discomfort with fisticuffs. Up the ante with more realism (or more practice) or stylize the action.

That said, this cast clearly knows their lines. Kudos. Holly Haverkorn, Jessica Parnello and Milagros Burney are standouts, bringing believability and depth to the production. Roquemore's Aaron is wonderfully dangerous, a swaggering bad man. And as Tamora's sons, Erica Erickson and Alicia Franks brought verve, if not consistent physicality, to their heartless men.

Still, key players, including Brooks as Titus, tend to run through their lines as if ticking off an urgent laundry list. There's meaning there, if you concentrate, but when pacing, rhythm and emphasis are missing, so is the connection to the character and their plight. Also lost in the delivery: some of the humor, legitimate emotion and building tension. And that exploration of maleness? It's mostly delivered monochromatically: stiff and stoic. With time, perhaps the all-female cast will tune up "Titus Andronicus" and take it beyond a playful gimmick. Right now, the swap complicates a lot more than it ever reveals.

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