In 2015 Rumble Theatre launched an ambitious project to commission new works from acclaimed Canadian playwrights based on classics from the Western dramatic canon, but adapted to a contemporary local/Pacific Northwest context. The first work in the series, Hiro Kanagawa's Indian Arm, based on Henrik Ibsen's Little Eyolf, premiered in April of that year and has just been awarded the 2017 Governor General's Award for English drama (my review of the original production can be found here). Last night, the second play in the series, by the two-time GG award-winning playwright Colleen Murphy, opened at The Cultch. The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius (which from here on we'll simply abbreviate to Titus B) is Murphy's inspired take on Shakespeare's bloodiest and most violent play, Titus Andronicus being a revenge tragedy more in the mold of contemporary works by Thomas Kyd and Thomas Middleton than what we later came to expect from the author of Hamlet and Othello and Macbeth.
Murphy is no stranger to dark material. Her play Pig Girl, inspired by the Robert Pickton case, depicts in one of its parallel plots the murder of an Indigenous woman in real time. But whereas Julie Taymor's 1999 film adaptation of Titus played to the gory appetites of screen audiences, bathing scenes in spectacular hues of red while also taking itself far too seriously, in Titus B Murphy chooses to mine the black humour of Shakespeare's original text, adopting a caustically farcical tone precisely in order to mock our fascination with generational violence. And she does so by drawing on the tradition of bouffon, her time writing the play having coincided with a playwright-in-residence gig at the University of Alberta, where Michael Kennard (one half of Mump and Smoot and a consultant on this show) teaches the art of clown. Thus, unlike with Kanagawa's take on Ibsen, Murphy's adaptation of Shakespeare is more one of style than of content. The characters and plot (albeit radically telescoped) remain the same, and large chunks of Shakespeare's dialogue are recited by the actors; however, at the top of the show a frame narrative introduces us to the members of the The Society of the Destitute, a taxpayer-funded community theatre troupe comprised of the very bottom layer of the 99% that will be putting on a show for us well-heeled types in the audience. Sob (Peter Anderson) plays the Roman general Titus; Spark (Naomi Wright) is Tamora, Queen of the Goths; Leap (Pippa Mackie) is a sexually aware Lavinia, daughter to Titus; Fink (a completely unrecognizable Craig Erickson) assails the dual roles of brothers Saturninus and Bassianus; and Boots (Sarah Afful) takes on the role of Aaron, though he would really prefer to be playing Macbeth.
Indeed, a whole bunch of other Shakespearean references get thrown our way throughout the ensuring 90 minutes, and if it quickly becomes clear that, notwithstanding their occasional lapses in delivering their lines, this rag-tag bunch of fringe performers knows the Bard's canon like the back of their characters' soon to be lopped off hands, we are also repeatedly reminded of why they eventually chose to stage this one: because it contains fourteen murders (a chalkboard keeps track of the victims). All of the deaths are depicted in a grotesquely cartoonish manner on stage, complete with plastic knives and ketchup bottles of fake splattering blood in the climactic scene where Titus serves up his revenge to Tamora and Saturninus in the form of a meat pie (its telegraphed appearance serving as a running gag throughout the play). And on the subject of meat pies, it should be noted that Murphy, like Stephen Sondheim in Sweeney Todd, also seems to be drawing on the traditions of Victorian melodrama, not least in her incorporation of music and song (the composer is Mishelle Cuttler). As with the story of Todd, who has been wronged by the legal justice system that has also robbed him of his wife and child, in Murphy's version of Titus's revenge plot there is a strong critique of the state, and especially a child and family welfare system that seems to prey on the most vulnerable in our society. To this end, the murders of Titus's and Tamora's sons are represented in this version via the dismembering, beheading and crucifixion of a succession of plastic baby dolls. And the real horror in watching comes not from registering the immense glee with which the performers attack this task, but in noting how hard we are laughing.
Stephen Drover's maximalist direction is perfectly suited to this material. I imagine that the operative word in rehearsal was "more": as in more mugging; more writhing; more fake blood. Production designer Drew Facey has constructed a set that nicely captures the play's gallows humour, including a final reveal that really hammers home Murphy's Swiftian point about the state eating its young. Finally, all of the actors are superb, inhabiting their bouffon humps and displaying their blackened teeth with slouchy, wide-mouthed delight. They are also able to move on a dime between line-perfect readings of Shakespeare's poetry and the contemporary comic asides interpolated by Murphy, and are clearly revelling in the physical comedy and direct cajoling of the audience. Sometimes that cajoling is scripted and sometimes it arises in the moment, as when last night, during Lavinia's "big feminist speech" about how only she has a right to decide who does what to her body, a cell phone went off. Without missing a beat, and following Mackie's lead by staying in full clown mode, the entire cast did a blistering take down of the offender and then adroitly picked things up from where they left off. Then again, maybe the interruption and ensuing admonishment was planned. Either way, it worked within the overall ethos and tone of the piece.
This is a production that takes its mandate to offend extremely seriously, and no matter our level of discomfort upon exiting the theatre we should be extremely thankful for this. We should also be thankful that we have in this country a playwright as fearless as Murphy. Formally there doesn't seem to be anything she can't do (witness the epic imagination of The Breathing Hole, which premiered earlier this year at Stratford); and in terms of subject matter, she is unafraid to stare into the abyss, and then to stare us down with what she has found there.