July 26, 2015

The Mad Mad World of "Ubu Roi"

Imagine that you are a guest at an elegant dinner party held in an all-white apartment in Paris' chic XVIième arrondissement.  Apart from the hosts' self-obsessed teenage son who occupies himself with a hand held video camera, everything is perfect until, without warning, the bourgeois husband and wife morph into raging maniacs - swearing, hallucinating, destroying the apartment and attacking each other and their guests - and in the next moment sitting at the table as though nothing had happened.  Sound like a nightmare?  Well, it's actually a contemporary take on a late 19th century play by Alfred Jarry now being performed as part of this summer's Lincoln Center Festival, and it's amazing!

Here's a little background.  Alfred Jarry was French writer known for his sharp wit and biting criticism of the conventional.  Born in 1873 he lived a short but meteoric life dying in squalor of tuberculosis at the age of 34.  While he produced several manuscripts of plays, prose and poems, it was his creation of the character "Ubu Roi" for which he is best remembered.

The play "Ubu Roi" opened and closed at the Théâtre de l'Œuvre in Paris on December 8, 1896.  Its outrageous, anti-social and generally offensive nature literally caused riots in the audience who objected to the language (the first word uttered is "merdre" a made-up variation of "s**t") the violence and the blatant derision of "normal" behavior and values.  Despite this inauspicious beginning, the play became a major influence on the Symbolist, Dada and Surrealist art movements, and, as this current production by the Cheek by Jowl company attests, remains significant to this day.

Briefly, the story begins with Mère Ubu persuading her husband, Père Ubu, Captain of the Dragoons, to kill King Wenceslas and assume the Crown of Poland.  Even though King Wenceslas is about to promote Père to Count of Sandomar, Ubu goes ahead with the scheme and murders the King.  The widowed Queen Rosemonde and their son, the Crown Prince Bougrelas, are legitimately frightened and go into hiding where the Queen dies.  Ubu Roi becomes completely obsessed with money and power, terrorizing the population to gain more and more dominance.  His wife, Mère Ubu, realizes that he is out of control and tries to stop him to no avail - Ubu Roi continues his murderous rampage by eliminating the magistrates and financiers who obstruct him before escaping to Russia.

In the meantime, Mère Ubu tries to steal back some of the ill-gotten treasure while Captain Bordure, a co-conspirator, realizes the monster he has created and implores the Tzar to declare war on Ubu.  Ubu Roi has defeated the Russians and survives an attack by a bear when his wife finds him and, disguised as the Angel Gabriel, implores him to forgive her.  The pair fight until she is rescued by the Crown Prince who is avenging the death of his father.  Finally, Ubu Roi succeeds in fending off his attackers with the body of the dead bear and he and his wife return to France and live happily ever after.

Sound bizarre?  You have no idea!  Whether performed in 19th century France or 21st century New York City the story is as madcap and shocking now as it would have been then.  An irreverent combination of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and Sophocles' "Œedipus Rex", Jarry's play lampoons government, society, religion and family values with an energy that is astonishing.  In between polite, civilized, dinner party conversation, the action erupts with manic bursts of rage and violence, vicious and infantile at the same time.  Performed in the original French with subtitles, this production of "Ubu Roi" is as relevant today as it was in fin-de-siècle Paris and was a more-than-stimulating theatrical event.

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