By Colleen Murphy. Directed by Stephen Drover. A Rumble Theatre production. At the Cultch's Historic Theatre on Thursday, November 23. Continues until December 3
“The worst revenge is the best revenge,” says one of the characters near the end of the spectacularly debased and shockingly funny new play The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius. While that line isn’t the best life advice, it certainly makes for a great night of jaw-dropping, audacious theatre.
Written by Colleen Murphy, it’s adapted from William Shakespeare’s blood-soaked revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus—also the title of the play-within-a-play staged by the troubled and unhinged five-person bouffon troupe of social outliers that is the Society for the Destitute. Upon receiving a $500 grant, they are tasked with putting on a Shakespeare play, and settle on Titus because it “has the most murders”.
Titus is a general in the Roman army whose enemy, Tamora, is queen of the Goths.
Their family members are casualties of their escalating cycle of revenge, and the graphic violence doesn’t stop at murder: among its many horrors, Titus also features infanticide, rape, torture, and cannibalism, all of which are overlapping interests in the Venn diagram of the members of the Society for the Destitute, a collection of truly grotesque individuals.
There’s Sob (Peter Anderson), an older man released from jail four years ago; Boots (Sarah Afful), a recovering alcoholic; Fink (Craig Erickson), whose mother abandoned him when he was a little boy; Leap (Pippa Mackie), a young woman who has grown up in abuse; and Spark (Naomi Wright), who is furious that two of her many children were taken by protective services years ago and she hasn’t seen them since.
The cast is fantastic, and they dig into the bouffon style of clowning (great work from bouffon coach Michael Kennard of Mump & Smoot, as well as direction from Stephen Drover) with relish and glee. Madness glints from their eyes and their twisted smiles as they engage in a ceaseless barrage of heinous acts, some hilarious and some bleak, all of them disturbing. Mackie handles some of the toughest material. Her Leap is a sex worker, but she’s also deeply damaged from her background of being abused. When Leap’s character, Lavinia, suffers a horrific fate and can no longer speak clearly, Mackie not only rises to the challenge, she shines.
In this play, the audience is shocked outside its comfort zone. It’s forced to, well, if not contemplate, then at least contend with the horrors of violence alongside larger moral questions about honour, our complicity in war, and the lengths to which we’ll go in order to justify pursuits of power (fighting for religion, for land, to gain freedom by suppressing the will of others). The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius is deranged, darkly funny, and perverse, but its subversiveness also serves a purpose, and it makes for an unforgettable experience.