Blood, rape, and mutilation are some of the juiciest toys in the bouffon repertoire which makes Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus a seemingly perfect playground. But while Colleen Murphy’s text roars along in Titus Bouffonius, the performers seem to enjoy speaking Shakespeare more than they do playing the bouffon.

Five members of the Society for the Destitue, a motley crew of deranged, poverty-stricken, semi-humans have received $500 in funding to put on a play. They have chosen Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s most brutal play. Titus has returned from the war only to be offered the crown. He denies it and it is given to the unworthy Saturninus instead. When Titus’ daughter Lavinia refuses to marry Saturninus, preferring his brother Bassianus, the young ruler selects Titus’ recently captured enemy – Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Much death and maiming ensues. The quintet of actors play Titus, Saturninus, Tamora, Lavinia, and Aaron, with a chorus of toy babies filling out the smaller roles.

This show is smart. The heady mix of bouffon revelry and Shakespearean trauma is fuel for an edgy comedy, and playwright Colleen Murphy has dug deep into both worlds to concoct an experiential feast. Stephen Drover’s staging is clever and creates a speedy tension that makes the staged bits of bouffon magic sparkle.

But while the performances are well-tuned and staged, they tend to feel a little too scripted for the bouffon moments to really shine. Even the bloody punch of Lavinia’s (Pippa Mackie) revelation of her victimizers lacks the necessary clownish delight. This is no remark on the skill of Michael Kennard, the show’s bouffon coach, but is more a testament to the difficulty of asking actors to tackle bouffon on a deadline.

Drew Facey’s production design is a delight, with jokes spilling out across the set, and Sophie Tang’s lighting design creates an eerie atmosphere where anything could happen.

Titus Bouffonius is a brilliant mashup of Shakespeare and bouffon. The Shakespeare creates heights of dramatic appeal for the bouffon to tackle and destroy. It is the beauty of this tension that brings out the delight in this play. Hopefully the performers will ease into it as the run continues, and can really find joy in the filth.

The Society for the Destitute presents Titus Bouffonius by Colleen Murphy. Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Directed by Stephen Drover.  A Rumble Theatre production presented by The Cultch. On stage at The Historic Theatre at The Cultch (1895 Venables Street) until December 3. Visit https://thecultch.com for tickets and information.

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