UNCW theatre’s production of Alfred Jarry’s early absurdist play “Ubu Roi” (translated by David Copelin and performed here under the title “Ubu Rex”) would make Jarry proud. Originally inspired as a schoolboy’s pantomime about a teacher he loathed, Copelin’s translation follows the story of Pa Ubu (Gary T. Moore), a local gang leader, and his sudden rise to power at the prodding of his wife, Ma Ubu (Rachel Johnson). They team up with General Sexcrement (Phillip Antonino) for a military dictatorship, and spend the next hour playing out the inevitable result: a civil war. The battle culminates in the re-examination of the throne by the surviving heir, Buggerlas (Matt Taylor).
The translator and the dramaturges, Dr. Grimes and Kristina Auten, are very taken with the riot caused at the 1896 premiere of the play in Paris; they even use the word “merdre,” meaning “shit,” as the opening line. Consequently, the reminders of the riot creep up constantly throughout the show. Pa Ubu refers to his wife somewhat affectionately as “my shit.” The general is named Sexcrement and, like the 13-year-old boy, Pa Ubu is perennially trapped as he revels in the use of profanity because he can, and it gets a response.
Best of all, his vulgarity makes him laugh. If anything, the schoolboy humor of the original comes through incredibly. Much like Austin Powers’ and Adam Sandler’s broad, vulgar humor captured the minds of adolescent boys everywhere, Pa Ubu is the man-child that “Saturday Night Live” aspires to satiate. He is selfish and unrestrained in his grasp for money, food, his own needs for survival over others’, and his appetites are limitless—as illustrated by the ridiculous fat-suit Moore sports.
Guest designer Pegi Marshall-Amundsen creates a world that blends the fairy-tale with the kids’ club house where “our gang” would get together to put on a show. The club house is decorated with rags, knick knacks, shoes, it even has a secret escape hatch to jump through—wherein Pa Ubu’s imaginary world leads to the dungeon where his political enemies are killed—and a slide for a fast get away. It is a remarkable representation of what a child sees when they play make-believe on the playground: the fortress has become a castle in Poland, and the child is the king!
Director Ed Wagenseller has a cast of only 10—most of whom comprise an ensemble of assorted parts. But the cast size never hinders the show because these people are in constant motion! Kaleb Edley, Tommi Boltinghouse, Ashley Mitchell, Emily Gomez, Justin Wilson, and Emily Kaitlyn Hunter join Antonino and Taylor.
They cycle on and off stage in an assortment of masks, costumes and ridiculous accents that are not meant to be realistic as much as highly stereotypical for comedic effect. All the characters are clear, distinct and preposterous. It would have been quite possible to expand the cast many times over to get more students onstage; rather, Wagenseller created a sharp, trim cast that moved with precision and responded to each other constantly. Moore, especially revels as Ubu Rex, strutting about in his fat suit with a toilet brush as his scepter. He couldn’t sell that if he didn’t have playmates willing to go along on this imaginary journey.
The cast’s energy would probably soften the blow the satirized teacher would feel had he seen this rendering. That is not to say larger themes of rulership, responsibilities of the conqueror and the horrific world of civil war are not addressed; they are. Coming at them from a humorous perspective, makes it easier to digest some of the harsh truths about the suffering Jarry explores. Again, approaching it through the eyes of childish make-believe, simultaneously makes the horror much more frightening and less real.
On the whole, the show is a very fun, fast-paced, humorous experiment in creativity. A few weeks ago, the UNCW Department of Theatre, and the Wilmington theatre community lost Dr. Terry “Doc” Rogers. The theatre department dedicates this production to him. A more fitting tribute could probably not be found for the late artist. Director Ed Wagenseller really embodies Rogers’ approach to theatre education: putting his students front and center in the experience, pushing them to grow and celebrating their successes. He mentions in his director’s note that he and the creative team aspired to have no two shows be identical. They wanted to embrace the creative moment, and the power of improvisational comedy to make the show an evolving entity.
The department seems to be on a winning streak with their last few shows. Part of what university theatre can do is take risks with productions that don’t have the box-office pull of immediate name-recognition. This allows many of the classics to stay in circulation and productions to find new audiences with each generation. If we continue to produce the classics because the stories are still relevant to our world today, then updating and rejuvenating them with contemporary references and idioms is necessary to provide a mirror for contemporary audiences. The cast and crew of “Ubu Rex” does exactly that. For a truly funny, thought-provoking evening that showcases young talent, “Ubu Rex”is a winner.
Thurs. – Sat., April 10th – 13th,
8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.
UNCW Cultural Arts Building