21 February 2014

ubiquity of Ubu-osity

Last Sunday I saw Cutting Ball's production of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, directed by Yury Urnov, in a new translation by Cutting Ball Artistic Director Rob Melrose. When the play premiered in Paris in 1896 there were riots in the audience, and the play immediately became a touchstone of modernism and a milestone in theatrical history. Oddly, though that kind of thing is right up my alley I had never seen or even read the play before. I'm always fascinated by these lacunae among aficionados; life is crammed with incident, most of it irrelevant to what we're really interested in, and time grows scarce, and you can't get to everything, and admitting that is admitting your mortality. Anyway I walked into the theater with only the vaguest idea of what I was going to see, and though apparently some adjustments have been made from the original version I can't speak to what exactly they are, though I can say that this production is brilliantly entertaining, with the sort of simple, even subversive directness that can only be produced by the highest sophistication.

The story itself is a variant of Macbeth; Father Ubu and his ambitious wife Mother Ubu join forces to take over the kingdom of Poland (the play of course predates Hitler, but for us it's as impossible not to hear an echo of the Third Reich in this plot as it is not to remember the Shoah during The Merchant of Venice). Along the way there are also refracted references to Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Richard III, and a bit of Romeo & Juliet, and maybe more, but though such things provide structure and ironic connections to theatrical history you could enjoy the play even without having heard the name "Shakespeare" ever before in your life; it's a slapstick tragedy that looks very much like the daily newsfeed. Few things fade faster than yesterday's shocking art; at this distance, though one can only admire the willingness of the Parisian audiences to be ridiculously outraged, what was absurd and obscene provocation to them looks like realism to us. The play has value beyond its historical interest and its once-shocking content.

The constantly repeated obscenities, for instance (generally versions of "shit"; I think there wasn't a single "fuck" uttered in the two-hour run time, which makes sense because devouring and therefore defecation are what you might call the all-consuming motive of the Ubus) sound depressingly like everyday conversations to us (I hear this sort of thing on the commuter trains and the sidewalks of the Financial District all the time); you have to want very badly to be shocked to find shit shit shit shocking, rather than a sad example of how we sound to each other these days – such accuracy forms its own scabrous satire on how we live now.

The setting for this production is a modern-style kitchen, all gleaming stainless steel and shiny utensils, which is a really brilliant concept, since it makes the setting both stylishly up-to-the-minute and primal: there is a basic hunger portrayed in these characters, who ignore or attack officially admired institutions of church and state and live in a world of abrupt, self-centered and self-serving actions breaking through the feeble veneer of civilized life. Ubu's opponents are sometimes portrayed using tomatoes or baby carrots, which is funny in the way of Chaplin's dance with the dinner rolls in The Gold Rush but also terrifying: Ubu looms over these little objects, slicing and smashing and devouring them. There's a honey bear that is put to threatening use, at one point last Sunday reducing two of the actors as well as the audience to helpless laughter. Spatulas become swords, the company forms itself into a horse, everything metamorphoses into something else. Clever use is made of music, lots of klezmer but also bits of Mozart and, in one memorable mimed battle, Barber's Adagio for Strings.

Ubu's opponent, the Czar of Russia, first appears shirtless and fishing; he is often shirtless and sporting, in the manner of Vladimir Putin, just one of the unobtrusive ways this production links the world of Ubu to the world around us. There is also the son of the King he killed, who (the son) is portrayed as a posturing, queeny youth, which was genuinely funny but also somewhat shocking to modern sensibilities, since we like to pretend that such caricatures have no basis in reality (I guess the shock of having to laugh at stereotypes is the current equivalent of an earlier age's shock at obscenity, just as people who these days casually say fuck would never use a racist epithet). Ubu is concerned almost entirely with how to get more money out of his world without having to spend any, even on the army he needs to defend what he has already grabbed. They might as well call him Mr 1%; his unprincipled and selfish greed is the guiding light for current American capitalism.

David Sinaiko, a Cutting Ball stalwart, brings his manic edge to Father Ubu, and Ponder Goddard is the hilariously scheming Mother Ubu. William Boynton, Nathaniel Justiniano, Andrew Quick, and Marilet Martinez bring the other parts to life. There is some audience involvement, of a painless and even enjoyable sort; when Mother Ubu towards the end tries to persuade her angry, stunned husband that she is an apparition, come to tell him that she has in fact never wronged him, some members of the audience get to read the "apparition's" lines to him (I was one of them – it's fun being an actor! but I was a little surprised that the other readers were so halting and stiff). Some of the audience members, depending on their proximity to the action, are given plastic ponchos to wear when the egg-tossing and tomato-smashing starts.

The last scene is done mostly on video, with stage directions read out loud as we see the Ubus wander out into the seedy surrounding neighborhood. It's an interesting way of transitioning us out of the theatrical world into the real but oddly similar world. It makes us conscious of theatrical artifice, and of how much it is a major element in the world around us, and our perceptions of that world.  As I left the theater I heard sirens and the rumor flying around the streets was that there had been a shooting in front of the Westfield Mall, just a block or two away from the Cutting Ball. This meant that the Powell Street BART station was closed, but of course the lazy, useless, overpaid BART employees didn't actually tell anyone that, and it wasn't until I got down on the dangerously crowded platform that I realized something was wrong. There were no announcements as to what was going on, and the electronic signs just flashed the usual boilerplate messages. I soon realized that I needed to get out of there and walk to another station. I stopped along the way to buy some chocolates, since I was quite hungry by then. And though I did spare a thought to the man who had been shot and his still-unapprehended would-be killer, I mostly cursed the inconvenience caused me by the greedy, incompetent BART employees who couldn't be bothered to get off their fat asses to tell people not to enter the station. Ubu's world is our world.

The show has been extended through 9 March. Go see it if you can. More information and tickets may be had here.


Axel Feldheim said...

I was curious about this show too, since I also have never read or seen any of the Ubu plays. You've definitely given me a nudge in the direction of checking it out. I'm also amused that you've critiqued not only the show but also audience members dragooned into script-reading.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I would definitely encourage a visit to this show. As I said, it struck me as much more than an interesting relic of theatrical history.

The thing about the audience members reading lines is that you'd think, especially given the giddy atmosphere that sometimes prevails in Ubu Roi, that the default would be to ham it up. Usually I am a dud when actors try to interact with me, but I must admit I thought I gave a pretty good performance, considering I had no rehearsal.