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Retaining Power: UNCW closes season with theatre of the absurd’s ‘Ubu Rex’

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UNCW will be closing their 2013-14 season over the next two weekends with the theatre department’s final show of the year. Actor, director, and lecturer at UNCW, Ed Wagenseller, will be directing “Ubu Rex,” based on Alfred Jarry’s 1896 surrealist play “Ubu Roi.”  After the show opened in Paris over a century ago, riots broke out in the middle of the streets because of the scandal present in the play.

While today’s more shock-proof society will view it among the first of the theatre of the absurd, “Ubu Rex” manages to ask timeless questions about the normalcy of the human condition and its parallel behavior. Following shiesty and shifty forms of retaining power and governing, the show’s  comedy centers around Papa Ubu, who is instigated by his wife to murder the royal family of Poland in order to take over the reign. Yet, at the heart of the story are themes recognizable today: greed, power, vanity, and stupidity.

We spoke with Ed Wagenseller about the opening of the student production and what to expect in the closing of the season.

encore (e): Tell me why you chose “Ubu Rex” to end the season. What kind of effect did this show have on you when you first saw it?

Ed Wagenseller (EW): I heard of the play and its importance in the world of absurdist and controversial theatre. I had never read or seen a production. The play was chosen by and approved by the full-time faculty, primarily because it supports our mission of university theatre. Our job is to expose the students to all styles of theatre in a four-year period, and this production serves that mission.

Also, the style of acting and performance required in “Ubu Rex” is unlike anything we teach in the classroom, which is dominated by Stanislavky/Hagen/Meisner/Boleslavsky/Strasberg realism. This show forces an energy that goes far beyond realism and, in fact, does not accept naturalism. It takes the naturalistic style of acting, and tosses it to the floor, [trampling] over it repeatedly. In short, naturalism and realism styles of acting just do not carry the energy or text of the show.

e: What makes this a good “learning production” for students and entertaining one for the community? I don’t recall this having been done in ILM; is this a premiere?

EW: I do not know of another theatre company crazy enough to do “Ubu Rex.” The demands of the cast and crew are extreme, and the title isn’t a big draw. Let’s face it: Popular titles put butts in the seats. We are offering a different product where the public gets works they can’t find anywhere else in town and have an opportunity to watch young artists develop over a four-year period. I think it’s exciting and what makes what we are doing in middle of Wilmington so unique.

e: What are the most difficult roles of the play and how are the thespians working through them?

EW: The role of Ubu is ridiculous. The text demands, coupled with the physical requirements, make this one of the most demanding roles I’ve seen an actor tackle. Gary T. Moore is playing the title role, and I am having so much fun watching him struggle, develop, and make discoveries of the demands of the role.

Make no mistake. This is an ensemble piece.  There is a cast of 10 playing multiple roles during our 60-to-70-minute production. They are on stage almost the entire time and are responsible for telling the story. They are discovering that this style of theatre is far more demanding than a traditional production. I’m not sure they were expecting what we threw at them.

e: Who are your professional leaders on this production; what are they bringing to the table? What have the students learned from them during this process?

EW: This production is all students. One of the most vital aspects to the production, other than the normal costume, sets, and lights, has been the dramaturgical additions, like assistant dramaturgical student Kristina Auten under the guidance of Dr. Charles Grimes. Dramaturgs don’t get the credit they deserve, but it was Kristina and Charles that opened up the world of the play with the research conducted on author Alfred Jarry. I am very thankful for their hard work.

e: This show involves scandal and “shock value,” yes? Would you say it still maintains a sense of timelessness despite it being over a century old?

EW: No—the Internet got rid of shock along time ago. Besides, there is nothing you can do onstage to shock me personally. If a theatre company wants to shock me with a production, then do something that moves me. We aren’t trying to shock; we are not trying to change the world. We will let the audience decide what this play means to them. If they wish to take away that this play is anti-capitalism, pro-socialism, or vice-versa, that’s on them.

I’m trying to make a play work in a modern world using highly simple and yet stylized theatrical techniques in both body and voice. I refuse to shove a message down the audience’s throat. It makes me nuts. Audiences are smarter than we think.

e: What about set design, costuming, lighting, sound, etc.? What can we expect?

EW: The set is designed by our visiting scenic and lighting designer Pegi Amundsen-Marshall. She has created a set with surprises at every turn and [is] an absolute joy to [with which to] work. The implementation by Max Lydy and our students is superb. As for costuming, I am so lucky to work with the best and most creative costume designer in the southeast in Mark Sorensen. He painstakingly has created costumes that will help clarify and tell the story that Jarry created. We are so lucky to have him, and I love collaborating with him. Natalie Smith is a wizard as our prop mistress. I just keep throwing ideas out there, and she keeps making it happen.

e: Any insight into the 2014-15 year at UNCW?

EW: 2014-15 is going to be an epic year in the world of UNCW theatre. In addition to the hiring of a new chair in Tom Salzman from Western Carolina University, and a new scenic and lighting designer, Randall Enlow, from Pacific University, we are putting a season together that exemplifies what it means to be a university theatre program. We open with Moleire’s “Doctor in Spite of Himself Adapted by Arne Zaslov.”  Dr. Paul Castagno directs “Middletown” by Will Eno. The third show will be “Hamlet” as directed by our Shakespearean scholar and master Christopher Marino. To finish the season, we are doing something I consider groundbreaking: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” under my direction using the same cast as “Hamlet.” Needless to say, the department and university community is abuzz.



Ubu Rex

Apr. 3rd-6th and 10th-13th, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinee, 2 p.m.
Tickets: $5-$12
UNCW Cultural Arts Building,
Mainstage Theater

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