december 2017 | Volume 162
Pippa Mackie as Leap and Peter Anderson as Sob in The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius. Photo by Tim Matheson
Consistently crude and scintillatingly grotesque, Rumble Theatre's shocking and silly adaptation and transformation of Shakespeare's most bloody and murder-laden drama, Titus Andronicus, into a daft comedy that thrives on the vivisection of dolls and deserves The Most Memorable Use of a Tampon Award, Titus Bouffonius is so continuously entertaining that one leaves the theatre aghast, speechless.
Audaciously written ("Go fuck a moose!") by Pig Girl playwright Colleen Murphy, who has brilliantly inserted sparse sections of Shakespeare's text without derailing the mayhem, this mawkishly brutal theatrical equivalent to the movie Titus starring Antony Hopkins is an unforgettable bloodbath of butchery during which you will disturbingly discover yourself laughing as the deranged Titus smothers an infant to death, complete with quivering, pudgy, baby doll legs in its death throes.
And it's all defensible, even politically astute.
"Rome is but a wilderness of tigers," Shakespeare wrote.
Indeed. In these increasingly revenge-driven, Trumpian times, this depiction of Titus "in an age of unreason" is a cultural warning, a wake-up call, about the venal depths to which humans can easily descend.
There is a plot:
Titus, a general, returns to ancient Rome after defeating the Goths. Having lost 21 sons on the battlefields, he has brought back the wicked Tamora, queen of the Goths, as a prisoner. He dismembers her baby with his bare hands for revenge (different from the smothering scene). Titus dotes lasciviously on his daughter, Lavinia, unaware she is betrothed to the mild-mannered and fey Bassianus.
As the conquering hero, Titus tragically decides not to accept the job of Emperor, affording that position to the brother of Bassianus, the vicious alpha male Saturninus, mistaking the latter's egocentric brashness for strength. Saturninus insists he must have Lavinia for his bride. Plotting her revenge, the wily Tamora easily forms an alliance with Saturninus and also conceives a child with a relentlessly evil Moor.
There's a good deal of simulated sex, absurd dialogue ("Come, labia lips") and one genuinely alarming scene in which the semi-coherent Lavinia, having just had her hands and tongue cut off, screams at the audience to call 911. This is NOT a show for the squeamish, the young or anyone who is going to be offended when a distraught father desperately beseeches the Cultch patrons for a rape kit.
There will be fourteen murders. The five actors presenting the show have a chalkboard on stage with the names of the fourteen people who will be killed—not including all the massacred infants—and they are crossed off as we proceed.
The full title of Murphy's version is The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius. The hilarious conceit is that five hapless ne'er-do-wells have received a $500 grant to put on a play. They repetitively and insincerely thank the taxpayers and forewarn the audience: this show might include some interpretative dance.
The Godot-like names of the quintet are Sob (Peter Anderson), Fink (Craig Erickson), Leap (Pippa Mackie), Spark (Naomi Wright) and Boots (Sarah Afful). Four of the five performances as ghoulish clowns are absolutely brilliant. The audience can pick their own favourites. Tamora giving birth on stage? Lavinia speaking with her tongue cut out? Titus agreeing to have his arm sawed off?
It's probably not giving away too much—because there is just so much to give away—to say that Titus Bouffonius doesn't lose its momentum under the splendid direction of Stephen Drover and the audience is rewarded with a climax that requires the stage to be covered so that the remaining characters can liberally squirt blood from plastic ketchup bottles during a melee of death and destruction and craziness.
Think of that mass shooting in Las Vegas.
I can't recommend this show enough.
I have a few things to add to Paul’s excellent review. I too thought the show was artistically superb: consistently imaginative direction from Stephen Drover, and wonderfully bizarre clowning from Craig Erickson, whom we don’t often see doing comedy, Naomi Wright and especially Pippa Mackie. Peter Anderson is solid as usual in the role of the group’s central organizer and narrator. And it’s nice to see Sarah Afful back in Vancouver, a UBC theatre grad who has become one of Stratford’s up-and-coming stars.
I admire the quality of the writing, too, the integration of a grossly funny contemporary argot with the Shakespearean verse. Drew Facey’s grotty set and Mishelle Cutler’s subtle soundscape add to the all-around quality of the piece.
But I have a lot of trouble getting my head around the extreme comic violence. I get Paul’s idea about the grotesque violence as “cultural wake-up call.” Playwright Murphy’s reinforces that idea to some extent in her program notes. Still, I found it chilling that violent rape and child murder—even if the children are obviously dolls—get big laughs. There’s a reveal at the very end of the show, which I won’t give away, that got a huge laugh. I found that appalling, a clear indication to me that the opening night audience didn’t get the message, if there was one, that the violence embraced in the play is horrific.
The identity of the characters as Downtown Eastside denizens enjoying their chance for a little catharsis I also find extremely problematic. Naomi Wright’s character, for example, tells us that Family Services has taken her kids away, and she comes back to that a few times in the play. How that fuels her rage and what we’re supposed to think about the combination of those kind of references with the jokes about killing kids and rape and dismemberment – it just doesn’t compute for me.
The production’s Brechtian devices—the metatheatrics, audience address, breaking into Kurt Weillian song—pile on the many other theatrical codes here that tell the audience this is some kind of parable with a political subtext. But what exactly the point is never came clear to me, whereas the idea that extreme violence is just a goof—the toxic message of so many video games and Hollywood movies—is reinforced at every turn, as the audience’s ultimate reaction seems to confirm.
As much as I thoroughly enjoyed the artistry of the show, I can only recommend that, if you see it, you should think hard about what you’re laughing at and why.
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