The time may have come around when we need anti-art bombs like Ubu again. Regardless of your political leanings, you must admit that reality has once again become too strange and ridiculous for serious theatre to address by itself. Which is to say, don’t go see Pointless’ Google Translate-aided adaptation of the proto-absurdist King Ubu to think. Don’t see it to avoid thinking, either, or to laugh at the ways it reflects current events or the ways it doesn’t. Just see it because it’s the best way you can use two hours once you’ve run out of more moral things to do.
I’m tempted to cut off this review right there, but you may wish to know a little bit more about the play, which, per the legend, caused a riot in 1896 when it had its first (and last) originating performance. It concerns the rise and fall of the title character, egged on Macbeth-style by his wife to take over Poland. More content to call himself Master of Finance than King, Ubu proceeds to fill his pockets – and his toilet – with as much as he can get his hands on.
Along the way, anyone who takes Shakespearean drama too seriously (such folks are rumored to exist in DC) will be thoroughly offended, as will anyone who finds the usage of “shit” as a frequent byword and occasional prop to be sophomoric and trite, as will anyone who thinks that a play featuring such intentionally puerile stuff should not also, on occasion, be unnecessarily genuine and break your heart a little.
Director Frank Labovitz deserves immense credit for walking cheerily off the cliffs of irreverence, dropping all the way down to the bottom where it is possible to be reverent again when he feels like it. The anarchic results belie the intense self-control and preparation the whole Pointless crew has put in. Leading the way as Ubu, Colin Connor (a DC newcomer we’ll certainly be seeing more of) bounces his giant belly around the stage like the world’s neediest baby with the most sonorously whiny baritone voice. Haely Jardas as his wife schemes and seethes unrestrainedly and gets into choking matches with him. Yet, in moments, they weirdly make you believe in the emotional truth of the marriage.
Madeline Key does the bulk of the unexpected breaking-of-hearts as both the orphaned Bourgelas, heir to the throne usurped by Ubu, and his tragic mother, played simultaneously by a puppet in her selfsame hands. It’s utterly stunning work. As well, Lee Gerstenhaber walks the fine line between being almost noble and utterly ridiculous (with a vewy sewious French accent) as Bordure, Ubu’s co-conspirator. The rest of the ensemble (Sarah Wilby, Nick Martin, Scott Whalen, and Mary Myers) cohere so seamlessly and effortlessly as a cadre of various fools that oftentimes they are indistinguishable from each other. That is, until they need a character to stand out – in which case one of them suddenly pops out from the background like a little firework.
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closes January 7, 2017
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The whole structure of deeply rude satire and viciously funny drama would collapse entirely, however, without the contributions of Mike Winch on accordion, drum, ukulele, slide whistle, and other instruments. His big floppy hat bops up and down as he sneaks us past our jaded judgmental-ness into a place of readiness for the absurd.
It’s easy to sit and make all sorts of comparisons between the egotistical, anti-political, rapacious Ubu and various contemporary figures, but this century-old play is no allegory. Pointless Theatre translated it from the French via Google (resulting in such wonderful nonsense words as “earens”), and presumably started preparing the production months ago – they could not have intended any obvious allusions.
Ubu is simply too powerful a stick of dynamite to reduce to a talking point. It is as crude, as petty, and as unlikely as our era – if considerably better produced – and we all need it, and more like it.
But if I’m making you feel obligated or so-over-it or anything like that in regards to whether you’re going to see Pointless’ production, don’t overthink it. Just go see some puppets get beheaded.
King Ubu by Alfred Jarry, translated by Google Translate, adapted by Pointless Theatre . Directed by Frank Labovitz . Featuring Haely Jardas, Colin Connor, Madeline Key, Lee Gerstenhaber, Sarah Wilby, Nick Martin, Scott Whalen, Mary Myers . Understudies: Brandon Leatherland and Sydney Lo . Set Designer: Frank Labovitz . Music Director/Composer/Musician: Mike Winch . Costume Designer: Ivania Stack . Puppet Designers: Patti Kalil and Rachel Menyuk . Props Designer: Amy Kellett . Lighting Designer: Mary Keegan . Stage Manager: Josie Felt . Assistant Stage Manager: Hayden Morrissett . Produced by Pointless Theatre . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.