The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius
Those familiar with William Shakespeare’s TitusAndronicus may be surprised to learn that the Theatre Network’s latest production is a comedic adaptation of the play. They will not be surprised to learn that The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius comes with some trigger and content warnings.
While we always try to avoid spoilers here, for the sake of this review we will assume the plot of the source material, Titus Andronicus, has the free and clear. I mean it was first performed in 1594, so … c’mon.
The TL;DR for the play, according to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, is “Tamora plans false incrimination, rape, murder, and mutilation. Titus plans murder and cannibalism. This is not a happy play.”
Yet Colleen Murphy has adapted it into a comedy—or more accurately, a satire—by choosing to cast a group of bouffons in the principle roles. The audience watches as the members of the Society for the Destitute do their best to put on their version of Shakespeare’s work.
Each actor plays at least two parts: their buffoon character and one or more of the Titus characters. Throughout the show, the buffoon characters emerge, either as they break character, merge their stories with those of the Titus characters or break into lines from other Shakespeare plays.
With a cast of only five sharing a small set, each of the performers constantly needs to be on and no one here is lacking in talent. Bobbi Goddard is deliciously wicked as Spark/Tamora, Helen Belay flip flops perfectly between the fumbling Boots and the scheming Aaron, and Hunter Cardinal is uncomfortably believable as the immature Fink, who does his best impression of “being a man” while playing Saturninus and Bassianus.
Robert Benz is captivating as Sob/Titus, especially in the plays more serious moments, and Marguerite Lawler, who plays Leap/Lavinia, will make you squirm as Leap/Lavinia.
That’s not a bad thing.
In a Q&A included in the program, the play’s buffoon coach Michael Kennard explains the difference between clowns and bouffons: “Audiences tend to laugh at the clown but in bouffon, the bouffon laugh at the audience. Clowns love to be loved by the audience whereas the bouffon never asks for the love of the audience.”
In other words, the bouffons are meant to make the audience uncomfortable and in that respect Titus Bouffonius delivers in droves.
There are moments of pure comedy in the play, but there are also moments, particularly a number with Lavinia, where it can be all the more upsetting because she is getting some laughs. The play also demands audience participation (you have been warned), but there are moments when Leap/Lavinia pleads for audience intervention and none comes. They’re made all the more disturbing by the audience’s willingness to do as asked at other times during the performance.
Having left the theatre, one is left to wander if all of this has been effective in forcing the audience to confront certain issues raised by the play, or if it has all been superficially swept away in a shower of laughter and fake blood.
It bears thinking about.
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