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Laughing in the Face of Depravity, The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius

In the face of one tragic news story after the other, the world is in need of some levity. Lucky for Vancouver, Rumble Theatre’s The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius is making a mockery of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy.

Playwright Colleen Murphy’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is a weird experience. Five social misfits with an urge to entertain have received a $500 grant to put on a play. They are the Society for the Destitute. They have been reading a lot of Shakespeare and are passionate interpreters of Shakespeare’s most gruesome play. A play they’ve selected “because it has 14 murders.”

Boots (Sarah Afful), Sob (Peter Anderson), Fink (Craig Erickson), Leap (Pippa Mackie), and Spark (Naomi Wright) have divided up the roles and bring their personalities to their grotesque portrayals of ancient Goths and Romans.

In Shakespeare’s original text, Marcus asks his father “why dost thou laugh? It fits not with this hour” – the audience might ask themselves the same thing. And though some moments work better than others, the overall effect is therapeutic. It’s a lot of fun for the audience to be in on the joke. It’s cathartic to boo Bassianus and Saturninus (both played to great effect by Craig Erickson as Fink), to be united in laughter at an infamous cannibalistic moment that involves pie.

The playwright deals with Shakespeare’s text’s most problematic moments by allowing the characters to personally respond to all the levels of wrong. So Boots (Sarah Afful) makes asides about the play’s racist treatment of Aaron the Moor, Spark (Naomi Wright) rails against Children’s Aid, Sob (Peter Anderson) crosses the characters off a kill list – spoilers be damned, and Leap breaks character as Lavinia to unleash a tirade about consent and her ownership of her sexual identity. The characters’ creative liberties prove to be liberating. These characters don’t play by the rules and they sure won’t keep their opinions to themselves, much to the audience’s delight.

Even when the jokes don’t land – Lavinia’s horrific fate is tricky to joke about, though Pippa Mackie unwaveringly commits with considerable success – the ragamuffin cast’s reactions are enough to break a stubborn audience into laughter and groans. The funny thing is, the subject matter is excessive and awful – and the cast is in on the joke.

A play within a play, the best part of Titus Bouffonius is the ridiculousness of it all. Rape, dismemberment, infanticide, racism aren’t funny – especially nowadays. We’re uncomfortable with the raw, violent excess of Titus Andronicus. Titus Bouffonius is about revelling in those golden, squirmy moments where there’s no choice but to laugh at the horror.

The cast excels at moments of tongue-in-cheek humour (sorry Lavinia), where the performers connect with the audience in their discomfort. The motley crew of characters creeps onstage with impish grins. Their clowning, commitment and enthusiasm is hard not to love.

With dance breaks, choral interludes, intermittent kill- counts, crude language, bawdy humour and pop-culture references, there’s a lot of levity to cut the dark subject matter. Using plastic baby dolls and ketchup bottles of fake blood to great effect, Titus Bouffonius is decidedly low-brow, and proud of it.

But bringing Shakespeare’s text into the bawdy makes it sympathetic and, judging by the audience reaction at last night’s show opening at the Cultch’s Historic Theatre, effective. There’s a contagious sense of play in the air as the performers linger in the audience’s discomfort.

A tale of revenge, rape, war, massacre, and dishonour, William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is an uncomfortable play on many levels. The phrase “everything is terrible” comes to mind. Yet its subject matter seems strangely relevant in our current social climate. As racial-tensions, sexual assault, and political corruption fill our newsfeeds, it’s unfortunate for humanity that the horror of Titus Andronicus doesn’t seem so antiquated.

The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius encourages us to get comfortable with discomfort, to revel in the outrageous and to trade our tears for laughter.