Spooky Action Theater’s spirited dive into the addled mind of avant garde playwright and nonsense man Alfred Jarry provides an experience of the provocateur’s life and art in a manner that complements the artist but eventually loses the audience.
Jarry Inside Out, artistic director Richard Henrich’s personal paean to Jarry, is creative and bursting with a writer’s joy in the subject, but the deep dive—especially in Act 2—into crepuscular esoterica is a cold shower for those not familiar with the man, leaving the whole enterprise to wither away in a deliberate exercise of obscurantism.
Briefly, Jarry was a playwright and crackpot philosopher associated with the late 19th century Symbolist art movement in Paris. He falls in between the cannon shot of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, the poets Rimbaud, Verlaine and Mallarmé, and the subsequent Dadaist, Surrealist and Modernist artistic schools of the early 20th century.
Best known for the absurdist satire Ubu Roi (1896), and for creating an alter ego based on Ubu, Jarry died a young man in 1907, but not before inspiring successive wave after wave of like-minded convention smashers, including Henrich.
It is evident with Jarry Inside Out that Henrich is captivated by Jarry’s life and works. The play’s challenge is presenting that personal admiration in a form true to the subject while also engaging with an audience who presumably will be new to the little-known Frenchman.
One of the area’s best at presenting nonlinear and experimental theater on a shoestring budget, Henrich, director Catherine Tripp and the animated cast mostly succeed in the play’s first act, where biographical sketches can be figured out and apportioned from snippets of Jarry’s works as well as from scenes set within the sepulchral, pitted landscape of his just-expired, cooling mind.
The play opens with Jarry’s death, and immediately we’re witness to the interior of his burned out brain, dank with drink and drug, lugubrious with fears and mournful yearnings, vividly expressed by Giorgos Tsappas’ viscid set, Brian S. Allard’s moody lighting and David Crandall’s disconcerting sound design.
Ryan Sellers is tireless in the lead role of Jarry, bounding about the set in complete assurance, and ushering a cast of eight playing more than 40 characters on a whirlwind tour through constantly shifting states of reality and time to tell the story of the deceased. The actors play a range of historical and fictional characters, from prostitutes and sycophants, to Oscar Wilde and the publisher Rachilde, to Jarry’s creations Ubu and the ridiculous Paladoons. You’ve got to be a fan to truly enjoy most of this stuff—a variety show of the absurd—but the cast is having a blast and play their varied parts with relish.
Ian LeValley especially stands out in his time on set, principally as the foppish blowhard Dr. Saltas. His sense of comic timing is deliciously shrewd and I hope to see him in more shows around town.
On the other end, ingénue Claire Aniela is blessed with a striking look but a neophyte’s hesitation, cautiously giving herself to her parts while her mates gleefully careen about in a tumult.
Jarry Inside Out is Richard Henrich’s passion project. It’s smartly written, well cast and innovative in form and design. It’s also fatally abstruse, focused on a dusty corner of esoterica and ultimately unwelcoming. At a certain point 90 minutes or so in, Henrich and a very select few are the only ones still smiling at a show created just for them.
Jarry Inside Out by Richard Henrich. Directed by Catherine Tripp. Featuring Claire Aniela, Carla Briscoe, Mikey Cafarelli, Connor Hogan, Ian LeValley, Karin Rosnizeck, Ryan Sellers and Eva Wilhelm. Lighting Design: Brian S. Allard. Set Design: Giorgos Tsappas. Sound Design: David Crandall. Costume Design: Erik Reagan Teague. Props Design: Alexandre Jamon. Puppet Design: Matthew McGee. Produced by Spooky Action Theater. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.