What a bitch of a time. The play is shit. You’ve Alfred Jarry to thank for that. The production is unique. You’ve Pointless Theatre Company to thank for that. In a new adaptation, translated by none other than the infamous Google-Translate (that bugger’s been mucking things up for years!), from the original Ubu Roi, comes a fitting-for-the-times disastrous calamity that they’re calling King Ubu, they being Pointless Theatre Company. Directed by Frank Labovitz with Musical Direction by Mike Winch, this whole absurdist nightmare is simply that: absurd— and that’s putting it politely. Though by Ubu’s damnable green candle you’ve got to take this rare opportunity to see such a bizarre and bent piece of theatre. Rarely produced outside of the collegiate scene— where disgruntled adjuncts have axes to grind and agendas to burn— Jarry’s work in all its vulgarity is prime for the time, so to speak. Political upheaval, corruption seizing power without any experience or logic to support such a shift, it all feels surprisingly relevant despite being completely preposterous.
Take it at face value: a modern adaptation of an absurdist work that was designed to incite rebellion, revulsion, and riotous behavior. Director Frank Labovitz pushes that agenda clearly above all while fully expressing the sheer absurd nature of the text, the characters, and the premise. Of course it wouldn’t be a Pointless Theatre production without puppets and music, both of which are plentiful and present for this performance. Music Director Mike Winch, who sits on the stage as a silent observer— as so many musicians do during time of political upheaval, using their instruments to make a stand— playing little shanties and melodies when and where appropriate, ensures that the audience does not suffer for lack of aural entertainment. This is true both during the show as well as the pre-show entertainment and at the intermission.
Puppet Masters Patti Kalil and Rachel Menyuk create some ghastly creatures that appear in puppet form all throughout the performance. Director Frank Labovitz initially utilizes the puppets to represents all of the characters that die. Overthrowing the bourgeois and nobles, among others. Some of these scenes are particularly hilarious, especially those that involve being flushed into the toilet, surely there is no worse way to go than down the shitter. One of the more epic moments amid this catastrophe of death-to-puppets involves an ensemble member coming out after one of the battle scenes and witnessing the carnage— read: decapitated puppet heads littered liberally over the stage— and crying at the top of their lungs, “But where are the bodies?”
In addition to puppets, Properties Master Amy Kellett deserves a green candle all her own to burn in brilliant tribute to her success with all things prop-related. This includes but is not limited to— and manly just about— the giant “attacking” bear, complete with removable innards of some sort or another. Fitting the vein of extreme absurdism, Kellett’s giant bear takes the play to a whole new level of ridiculous, which is par for the course when it comes to both Jarry and Pointless Theatre. Mary Keegan, Lighting Designer, also deserves a nod for her work with shadows and mood enhancers. It’s an active rolling visual stunt that must be seen to be fully appreciated, though would not be possible in the least without the aforementioned design team members.
To play so committedly in an absurdist drama— comedy? Dramedy?— requires a certain level of skill that each of the ensemble members brings to the table in full earnest. Lee Gerstenhaber, Madeline Key, Nick Martin, Mary Myers, Scott Whalen, and Sarah Wilby take turns being a whole host of unsavory characters all throughout the production in addition to each taking their turn as a named principle character. Most notably Gerstenhaber takes on the role of the revolutionary resistance leader (depending on whose point of view you take) Bourgelas. Headstrong and simultaneously whiny, Gerstenhaber gives the character a gritty yet resilient vibrancy that holds well against the tyrants Ma and Pa Ubu.
Mary Myers and Scott Whalen take up the roles of Cotice and Pile, respectively. The two blundering, dunderheaded sidekicks who assist Pa Ubu once he’s banished in exile (or fled in cowardice, take your pick) in all of his nonsense. Both have delightful approaches to their attempted nonsensical French-inspired accents and both are well versed in comedic timing as well as physical comedy, particularly when they are set upon by the giant stuffed bear.
Ma Ubu (Haely Jardas) is a ruthless and conniving Lady Macbeth sort who is as corrupt as she is vile. The way she and Pa Ubu (Colin Connor) go at each other is nothing short of repugnant, particularly when they take to abusing one another. But this drives a great deal of the show’s ludicrous tension. Much like Connor, Jardas brings a great level of affectation to her character, though it is mostly witnessed in the way that she stalks about like some great wingless bird of prey, waiting for the right moment to strike. Connor, who is equally affected but in a very different vein, uses his over-pronounced center of gravity— his purposefully protruding paunch— to make a fussy of funniness about his character. The voice Connor adapts to Pa Ubu is as insanely absurd as everything else in the play and when he delivers the iconic line “…if it weren’t for Poland there wouldn’t be any poles…” in that voice, it slaps an absurdity label on the production as a whole that simply cannot be beat.
With political undertones, overtones, inner-tones, and outer tones— there is so much that can be read in and out of this production that it should be seen, even if it is vulgar, especially since it’s vile, but most importantly because we still live in a nation that supports artists doing utter shit like this on the stage for the sake of being able to do so. Support Pointless Theatre and their bold endeavor to capitalize on political upheaval and turmoil by annihilating Jarry’s work, a thing he would likely be most proud of.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes with one intermission
King Ubu plays through January 7, 2017 with Pointless Theatre Company in the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint DC—916 G Street NW in Washington, DC. Tickets are available for purchase at the door and for purchase in advance online.