An air of solemnity and dire seriousness imbues the cramped theatre where Ubu Roi is staged. As you navigate your way to a seat, a severe woman brusquely urges you to get settled as quickly as possible, as her associates mill about the stage area, consumed with a collective grave worriedness. Without introduction, the play opens with a rueful preface, a preface which also serves as a warning—the members of the audience are about to witness a tale replete with treachery, malice, regicide, genocide and out-and-out tragedy; and in witnessing this tale, the audience too is actively engaging in a form of treason that could be punishable by death.
For individuals unaware of the absurdist theatrics of the original Ubu Roi, this emphatically dreary pre-show introduction would seem like a preamble to two hours of unbearably draconian misery, perhaps something along the lines of the grueling history piece Pan Tadeusz. But where Pan Tadeusz is a Lithuanian elegy of a destroyed country, Ubu Roi is a scathing French borderline-surrealist play brutally satirizing the disintegration of Poland and the backward politics of Eastern European countries. Ubu Roi, originally written by French playwright Alfred Jarry in 1896, is a bleakly tongue-in-cheek story of a buffoon who overthrows a bumbling king in pseudo-Macbethian fashion, only to go on a rampage of avarice and carnage because of his own greed and ineptitude. In Throughline’s recent, self-coined “very freely adapted” reimagining of Ubu (freely adapted by Connor Shioshita Pickett and Jordan Matthew Walsh), the ludicrously derisive saga of Ubu—which, in non-revealing terms, chronicles a slovenly drunkard Ubu as he, at the behest of his deviously smarter wife, murders his way to becoming the King of Poland—is vaguely modernized while keeping the fixings and grandeur of the turn-of-the-century original.
Mere minutes into the action of the play, the obscenely raucous antics that carry the play are introduced with the unabashed gusto, undoubtedly jarring (and maybe even appalling) those audience members unaware of what was to come (and, perhaps, jarring those members of the audience who were fully braced for the ensuing ribaldry). Throughline’s Ubu Roi, directed with an admirable allegiance to the source material by Shannon Knapp, is an outlandish recreation of the original. The proclivity for outrageous language and antics in this recent adaptation of the play is reminiscent of the repulsively bawdy French absurdism of the ilk of Gargantua and Pantagruel in such a way that the play stands out as a distinct statement on the standards of decency and authority in theatrical representations. While Ubu can at times be a test in endurance—a two-ish hour show that has no intermission, making the deluge of dialogue and rapid sequencing of events feel all the more extreme and relentless—both in terms of stamina and tolerance, the outstanding performances elevate the already well-orchestrated show to an entirely different level.
The cast as a whole should be applauded for absolutely impeccable performances individually and as a group, seamlessly intertwining and riffing off one another throughout the show’s bizarre plot devolution. Particularly robust applause should be bestowed upon Vanessa St. Clair, who takes her role as Mama Ubu, which could have easily been caricatured or subdued into the realm of Tertiary Character Purgatory, as the ideal opportunity to broadcast her unparalleled, efficacious presence on stage. St. Clair’s physical and dialogic performances transcend the expectations of comedic performances, and her portrayal of Mama Ubu is, to use a trite phrase I typically abhor, a show-stealing delight. St. Clair’s phenomenal performance in no way outshines the rest of the cast, who all do exceptional work in a show that is, at times, better choreographed and acted than it is logistically executed. Exquisitely bombastic John Feightner shines as the king fated to regicide, and every bit part he plays is equally radiant. The man behind the titular Ubu, Brett Sullivan Santry, is fantastically robust and divinely salacious in his presentation of the foul, bloated, disgusting-minded king. There is, in fact, little that could be said to critique the cast of Throughline’s sensationally acted Ubu Roi.
Ubu Roi, in its most recent iteration, is a play that, as previously stated, is carried on its performances and its seamless production and stage direction. Knapp and AD Brittany Tague expertly arrange and choreograph a show in which the action and ideas often break away at a manic pace that is challenging for some of the audience to grasp. Additionally, the choices in language and gratuitous absurdism is at times a bit callously tone-deaf, but the expert execution of the show more than makes up. Ubu Roi is a flamboyantly funny and superbly well-acted addition to the Throughline repertoire.
Throughline Theatre’s Ubu Roi runs at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre downtown through June 30th. For tickets and more information click here.
Photos by Rick Moore
Categories: Archived Reviews