(Cutting Ball Theater’s production of “Ubu Roi” plays at The Exit Theatre from January 24 through February 23, 2014.)
The premiere performance of Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi”, which took place in Paris in 1896, is legendary. As the lead character—the fat, flatulent, childish, disgusting, indecent, pathetic, monstrous and occasionally sexy Father Ubu—delivered “Shit!” as the opening line, the audience began to shout and riot. This was something new. William Butler Yeats was one of the shouters in the audience that night, and later described the character of Ubu as a “Savage God”.
Subsequent generations of critics have recognized Ubu Roi as a (perhaps the) seminal work of the Theatre of The Absurd. It remains outrageous, difficult, confusing, riotous, hilariously funny and utterly unique. It’s scatalogical language, shocking violence, bizarre humor and heady, sophisticated references to the Shakespearean canon still have the power to stun. This is definitely true of director Yury Urnov’s interpretation of a brilliant new translation by Cutting Ball’s artistic director, Rob Melrose.
Melrose’s translation does an excellent job of shock and titillation, making the familiar fresh and accessible so that a modern audience is able to experience something of the impact this play would have had more than a century ago. For example, he translates the opening line (which, in French is “merde” with an added “r” at the end) as “To shit….”, successfully evoking Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy. The association of “shit” with Hamlet’s soliloquy has the power to shock and disgust even today.
Scenic designer Michael Locher and director Yury Urnov have insightfully set the play in a sparkling upscale kitchen, which serves as a metaphor for the very bowels of Father Ubo’s depraved kingdom: a place of butchering and garbage. At times, characters seem to appear from the underworld, literally emerging from the plumbing, crawling in sewage. Pure id, they climb, creep and toddle about the stage like demonically possessed infants, terrible indeed.
Like its inspiration, “Macbeth”, Ubu Roi presents a world without deity, a version of Hell as a complete absence of meaning or grace, “full of sound and fury and signifying nothing”. Jarry, however, insists that we respond not only with horror, but with laughter at the absurdity of it all. (Shakespeare anticipated this, too, with “Titus Andronicus”, which many critics have treated as an exercise in comic exaggeration.)
While all of the design elements are superb, Cliff Caruthers wonderful sound design deserves a particular call out. Caruthers incorporates circus music, klezmer music, flatulent oom pah pahs, and even the theme from a celebrated TV sitcom about witches. When, at times, he inserts a beautiful baroque brass ensemble the effect is jarring as the world of the play is in every way the opposite of the ordered divine vision of the baroque. And yet, what is more flatulent than a brass ensemble? The music provides a sophisticated commentary to the action, with philosophical import. It is quite an accomplishment!
All of the cast are excellent. David Sinaiko’s petulant potty mouth king is riveting, and ensemble player William Boynton is particularly good as a comic Russian czar whose half-naked posturing evokes images of Vladimir Putin.
Director Urnov and his highly capable company know how to ride the razor’s edge between horror and comedy. Indeed, they tap dance on it. The shock value is there, but it is all super entertaining and very, very funny. They have pulled out all the theatrical stops, incorporating tumbling, juggling, puppetry, audience participation, slapstick, and Grand Guignol grotesquerie, all to good effect.
Although it lags, especially in the second half, which at times seems repetitive and overlong, this is a production that will live long in the memory.
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“Ubu Roi” by Alfred Jarry in a world premiere translation by Rob Melrose produced by Cutting Ball Theater. Director: Yury Urnov. Scenic Designer: Michael Locher. Lighting Designer: Heather Basarab. Costume Designer: Sarah Roland. Sound Designer: Cliff Caruthers. Props Master: Brittany White.
Father Ubu: David Sinaiko. Mother Ubu: Ponder Goddard. Ensemble: William Boynton, Marilet Martinez, Andrew P. Quick. and Nathaniel Justiniano.
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