Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi can be an irritating classic. A seminal avant-garde work that informed later movements such as Surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd, Ubu famously set off a riot at its 1896 premiere in Paris with its first line: “Merdre,” a mutated French cuss word with an extra letter, often translated as “Pshit” or “Shittr” in English (“Tashit” in the new Cutting Ball Theater version). The titular Father Ubu says that phrase over and over in the play, along with other nonsensical oaths such as “By my green candle!” The humor is scatological and often silly, the plot—such as it is—meandering. An absurd parody of Macbeth with stray elements of other Shakespeare plays, it features the childish and gluttonous Father Ubu murdering the king of Poland to seize power, and then killing all the other nobles and taking all their money.
The Cutting Ball production is the premiere of a new translation by artistic director Rob Melrose, published in a 2011 Exit Press collection of his translations of three avant-garde classics. But it’s really the superb staging by Russian director Yury Urnov that makes the best case for Ubu as an enduring classic.
It’s all set in an ultra-modern kitchen, which adds nothing in particular in terms of content but adds a lot of great opportunities for assorted hanky-pantry. Michael Locher’s sleek set is bursting with spacious moving kitchen islands and cupboards from which characters emerge. Colanders and broiler pans are used as armor and pans and ladles as weapons, some scenes are enacted by napkin puppets, and chopping vegetables stands in for executions. (Kudos to props master Brittany White.)
Cliff Caruthers’s sound design is laced with a marvelous musical mix of klezmer, Balkan brass, vintage TV themes, familiar waltzes and tangos, a quirky arrangement of the “Imperial March,” and the inevitable “Adagio for Strings.” There’s a prominent video screen that’s curiously underutilized until the very end of the show, when it suddenly becomes indispensable. In fact, there’s a moment early on when people are making a show of watching it although there’s nothing on, making me wonder if there was some kind of technical glitch going on in the first act. The theater also reeked of cigarette smoke throughout the performance I attended, but that, we were told, was wafting in from the Tenderloin outside.
David Sinaiko and Ponder Goddard make a strikingly elegant couple as Father and Mother Ubu, he in a tuxedo and she in a slinky red dress. There’s a flirtatious edge to their constant squabbling that’s curiously sexy, given that he’s an unwashed and flatulent lout and they’re both depraved money-grubbing fiends. In fact, Father Ubu has a short attention span for this Machiavellian loveplay, leaving Goddard’s sultry Mother Ubu frustrated and increasingly voracious in her will to power. The accompanying four-person ensemble is similarly well-dressed by costumer Sarah Roland, playing an ever-shifting array of coconspirators, aides, enemies and soon-to-be-murdered lords. William Boynton is a weary old King Wenceslas and an imposing shirtless tsar. Nathaniel Justiniano doubles as brave and betrayed coconspirator Bordure and the fey and childish rightful heir to the throne, Bougrelas (pronounced “Boogerless”). Marilet Martinez is a haughty queen and a blasé aide, and Andrew P. Quick fills in less specific roles but contributes some notable apple-juggling.
There are some puzzling bits here and there (such as why Ubu takes on a German accent in one scene), and it drags a bit toward the end with a lengthy audience-participation bit. But on the whole it’s a wondrously dynamic, stylish, smart and provocative production that more than justifies the madcap classic’s ubu-quity.
Show #10 of 2014, attended February 1.