The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonious: Just how dark do you want it?

Rumble Theatre is presenting The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius at The Cultch.

Peter Anderson (Titus) should not be allowed to play with dolls. (Photo by Steven Drover)

At the beginning of The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, I was so stimulated—so shocked, laughing so hard—that I was afraid I was going to start shouting things. Unplanned, random shit. You’ve got to love a show that makes you feel like you might lose your mind.

The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius is playwright Colleen Murphy’s bouffon adaptation of Shakespeare’s grisly Titus Andronicus. Bouffon is a dark inversion of clowning that was developed by the French movement master Jacques Lecoq. Bouffon emphasizes parody and grotesquery: the body of the performer is often distorted through costuming. As Lecoq said in his definition of the bouffon, “There are echoes in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.”

Bouffon embraces the discarded and ridicules accepted norms. In the framing device of Titus Bouffonius, we meet the marginalized characters who are going to perform for us. Sob, who is playing Titus, has done a lot of jail time. Leap, who will become Titus’s daughter Lavinia, is a victim of sexual abuse. She sucks cock to earn money because she wants to get a rescue dog—hopefully a German shepherd or a Labrador. As they introduce themselves to us, all five players thank the taxpayers who have made their $500 production grant possible. And they express their gratitude for a charitable organization that supports the rights of a long list of the dispossessed including “people who self-identify as pineapples.”

Then these characters launch into the script. Having lost 21 sons in battle, but ultimately victorious in war, Titus returns to Rome dragging his prisoner, Tamora, Queen of the Goths, behind him. In revenge for his losses, Titus slaughters one of Tamora’s sons. And so the cycle continues. Tamora bides her time, marrying the wicked Saturninus, who has recently been made emperor. But fury will out. Titus contains 14 murders and a nauseatingly brutal rape and dismemberment.

And this is funny? Well, it’s consistently hilarious at first and then intermittently so. The hilarity derives from a giddy combination of transgression and inventiveness. Generic plastic baby dolls represent many of the children. When Titus sacrifices Tamora’s son, he rips the doll’s legs off. Later, when Aaron, Tamora’s Moorish accomplice, is watching a romantic scene, he mimes jerking off, using the doll’s leg as a penis. Okay, maybe you have to be there for that one. How about this? When Tamora is giving birth to a child she has conceived with Aaron, little brown doll legs start to appear beneath the hem of her mini-skirt.

Even for me, Titus Bouffonius isn’t entirely successful. After its thrilling opening, the show hits a bit of trough and never entirely recovers. That’s because it doesn’t keep topping itself. The script largely abandons the framing device of the players’ stories. And it doesn’t know quite what to do with the mechanics of Shakespeare’s plot. In that plot, two of Tamora’s sons rape Lavinia, then chop off her hands and cut out her tongue so she won’t be able to identify them. Stylistically, Titus Bouffonius enters a kind of no man’s land at this point, mining the horror both for absurdity (Lavinia’s assailants challenge her to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” without a tongue), and for pathos (playing Lavinia, actor Pippa Mackie’s eyes well with tears). Yes, a certain amount of disorientation is interesting, but, for me, there wasn’t enough serious context to make Lavinia’s plight deeply affecting; there was only enough to make it unfunny. Strengthening both sides of this dynamic—by allowing for deeper horror and more distinctly defined absurdity—might help.

There are also a couple of points at which Titus Bouffonius gets disconcertingly earnest. Lavinia delivers a self-described feminist speech and Titus goes on a rant about power structures. There’s nothing wrong with these politics, but making them explicit weakens them and, stylistically, it messes up the evening.

Some of the performances are thrilling. With surgical precision, Naomi Wright flips between playing Tamora and being Spark, the actor who performs her. And Mackie is dizzyingly liberated as Lavinia/Leap, fearlessly propositioning audience members. Both of these actors combine complete commitment to the irrational with extraordinary timing. Craig Erickson plays Fink, who takes on the roles of both Saturninus and his gentler brother Bassianus—and Erickson’s rhythms are fabulously weird. He feels totally in the moment, unhinged from the usual expectations of theatrical timing—and it’s fascinating to watch internalized, fucked-up Fink as he tries to negotiate reality on his own terms.

Surprisingly, Peter Anderson, who is a gifted and experienced physical comedian, doesn’t come up with much as Sob/Titus. And, although Sarah Afful (Aaron) sports an infectiously wicked grin as her player character Boots, there’s not a lot of depth or surprise in her portraits. That said, there’s enough going on with both of these performers to sustain the life of this ensemble piece.

Thanks largely to set and costume designer Drew Facey, Titus Bouffonius looks fantastic. (This video will give you a taste of it.) Lavinia has bony shoulders, and she wears filthy tights with the pink ribbons from ballet slippers wrapped around her calves. Tamora stalks the stage in a ragged, leopard-print ensemble and little black suede boots that look like hooves. The set—with its rickety staircase and balcony, with its tattered red curtains—looks like the haunted-house version of something that might have been up at The Cultch a hundred years ago.

After the show, when I asked pals if they would recommend it to friends, they were surprisingly hesitant. I have no such hesitation. The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius isn’t perfect, but it has a vision. There is extraordinarily original work on all levels of director Steven Drover’s production. And I can’t remember the last time I saw a show that got me so excited I thought I might lose my marbles.

THE SOCIETY FOR THE DESTITUTE PRESENTS TITUS BOUFFONIUS By Colleen Murphy. Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Directed by Steven Drover. A Rumble Theatre production presented by The Cultch. In The Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Thursday, November 23. Continues until December 3.

 Get your tickets here.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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