There was a time in the cultural history of Western man when audiences would display their displeasure over a particular piece of art by committing mayhem. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, actual riots broke out when theater crowds became incensed over some visionary's attempt to break the rules governing what was acceptable in their beloved art form. (This, of course, was before the European masses took up more satisfying forms of social rebellion, such as rioting at soccer games or igniting world wars.)
In 1896, a theater riot broke out in Paris during the opening night performance of Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry's revolutionary and experimental play. Ubu Roi not only challenged the prevailing bourgeois predilection for realism on the stage, but also was unapologetic in its lack of respect to royalty, religion and society, and in its vulgarity, scatology and brutality. In fact the trouble began immediately after the play's fat, flatulent protagonist, Pere Ubu, uttered its opening word: "Merdre!", a bastardized pronunciation of the French exclamation "Shit!"
Depending upon one's point of view, things went either swiftly downhill or mightily upward from then on. Historians point to Jarry's groundbreaking opus as the precursor to new movements in the art world — Absurdism, Dadaism and Surrealism, for instance — as well as for opening bold and innovative directions in theater, chiefly the Grand Guignol movement which held sway in Paris for the first few decades of the new century. The audience in Jarry's time, however, was not so prescient. The play never made it beyond its opening night.
The original script for Ubu Roi (or King Ubu) was written by the young Jarry and his schoolmates as a rather cruel burlesque of a hated teacher who represented to the youngsters all that was ugly and repressive. Years later, Jarry had the notion to put the puerile drama into a form that utilized its juvenile aspects — fart jokes, toilet humor, name-calling, endless scrapping, fighting and childish game-playing — while elevating its theatrical and thematic purpose: depicting kings and rulers as duplicitous, cowardly, power-mad, immature thugs, and war as a stupid exercise no more glorious than the meanest and dirtiest school-yard brawl.
The rarely produced play is being given a wildly comic and brazenly theatrical revival, a century after its premiere, by John DiDonna, Seth Kubersky and their Empty Spaces Theatre Company. Knowing that audiences will no longer be shocked by the work's crass uncouthness and tasteless impropriety, director DiDonna wisely invites the audience into Jarry's infantile universe as co-conspirators, even having his troupe pass out rubber fart sound—making toys, to help unlock the boisterous buffoonery that will be the evening's main course.
And what a joyous feast lies in wait! The production is a banquet of inventive movement, brilliant clowning, shameless overplaying and skillful ensemble acting that extracts all the pleasures from Jarry's jumbled and inarticulate script. Bobbie Bell is brilliant as Ubu, the vain, cowardly, selfish, stubborn, treacherous and ultimately despicable king whose taste for corruption is on par with a 2-year-old's penchant for getting his whiny way. Peg O'Keef is a hoot as the overly endowed Mère Ubu, and Joe Comino excels as the sexy, manic second-in-command, Bordure.
Ultimately, the production's animated theatricality prevails as the plot meanders hopelessly from one absurd scene to the next. In one instance, with Empty Spaces' working ethos powering the ensemble's creative juices, the company creates the evening's most inventive mimetic: Ubu disposing of victim after victim into a comic torture chamber made from a gymnasium of twisting, bouncing and gyrating bodies.
One would be wise not to miss this "riotous" entertainment. Even Jarry might have exclaimed, "Holy merde! C'est la droll shit."[email protected]