At The Cultch until December 3, 2017
Tickets from $22 at thecultch.com
Posted November 29, 2017
If you need a really good laugh and you’re okay with dark, grisly, bloody, grotesque, rude and crude – all wrapped up in the French clowning style called bouffon – you will love Titus Bouffonius as much as I did. How else can we get through these dreary, rain-sodden winter days?
Commissioned by Stephen Drover, artistic director of Rumble Theatre, playwright Colleen Murphy takes Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus by the tail and spins it around. Shakespeare’s story is still there: Titus Andronicus, a Roman general, returns from ten years of war, having lost twenty-one of his twenty-five sons (obviously he believes in making love not war at least some of the time). With him, he brings his prisoners Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her three sons and her lover Aaron, the Moor.
After Titus Andronicus sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son to appease the deaths of his twenty-one sons, all hell breaks loose. It gets worse. Much worse. There’s a rape. A behanding – like a beheading but it’s hands. Bodies pile up.
Playwright Murphy’s framing of this play is truly inspired: five ragtag, down-on-their-luck street people apply for and get a $500 grant to produce a play that will have just one performance. “Thank you, taxpayers”, they chortle, leering at us. They read a bunch of Shakespeare plays and choose Titus Andronicus. Sob (Peter Anderson) will direct, narrate and play Titus; Fink (Craig Erickson) will play both Bassianus and his brother, the Emperor, Saturninus; Spark (Naomi Wright) will be Tamora; Leap (Pippa Mackie) will be Lavinia, Titus’s daughter and one who gives “blow jobs for five bucks” (she’s saving up to get a rescue dog); and Boots (Sarah Afful) will be Aaron, the Moor.
Sob, Fink, Spark, Leap and Boots are all cracked and they are well aware – like kids in a Christmas pageant – that they are in a play. Sob, recently released from prison, is the most together and keeps everyone more or less in line although Boots repeatedly makes an entrance with a pie and is told again and again, “not yet”. It’s all completely anarchic.
The set, Sob tells us, was salvaged from the Vancouver Playhouse. It’s roughly put together by designer Drew Facey with askew planks and an old theatre curtain. The various sons that come to a violent are all naked, plastic baby dolls that Leap/Lavinia tells us are hers all except the “coloured” one. Red plastic knives, for stabbing, abound – some are handed out to the audience. The costumes that Sob, Fink, Leap, Boots and Spark have chosen to wear look like they’ve come from a battered strip mall clothing bin and the makeup they’ve put on by themselves is ghoulish.
Under the direction of Stephen Drover, this is a very tight ensemble piece and each actor is simply perfect for the part. Did anyone suspect that Craig Erickson could do bouffon? As Bassianus, he’s mild and slightly fey; as Saturninus, weirdly always wanting his “mommy”, he’s bizarre. Creeping about, legs always slightly bent, Naomi Wright is, well, creepy. And what she does with a repeated silent, frozen, “Hah” to the audience is perfection. With a partly green-painted face, Sarah Afful holds a goofy but malevolent grin throughout and Peter Anderson, the weary but still enthusiastic director of this little band of misfits, keeps the story going to its inevitable conclusion. On a chalkboard, he crosses off the dead.
Composer Mishelle Cuttler introduces the play with a sort of German underground cabaret music and also writes several little hymn-like ditties performed by the ensemble all clustered together. It sounds great.
There’s serious intent deeply buried in Titus Bouffonius with songs like, “Willingly we suffer for our children” and lines like, “Black lives matter, motherfucker, “Revenge is the sugar in my blood” and especially, “I am so full of sorrow I want to kill the world.” With the seeping through of each of the players’ shabby, destitute lives into Shakespeare’s characters, we get a real sense of the despair and hopelessness of outcasts. What revenge will the poor and desperate of the world wreak upon the rest of us when their time comes?
But the packaging is very funny and very clever. And, ironically, even a wild and crazy spoof of Shakespeare carries truth: “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind” – Mahatma Gandhi.