Royally Screwed | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Theater

Royally Screwed

Theater Review: The Once and Future Ubu


Published December 15, 2005 at 1:14 a.m.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Revolutions devour their own children. These truisms march across history's pages, modern-day monarchs perpetuate the gory reality, and people respond as they always have: either by sticking their heads in the sand, or by exposing the emperors as naked fools. Satire is a particularly effective political weapon, because dunderheaded leaders are less likely to recognize their caricatures and send satirists to the guillotine.

Burlington playwright Seth Jarvis shouldn't fear personal scrutiny just yet. His The Once and Future Ubu, a withering, absurdist take on the ravages of power, now playing at the 135 Pearl Shoebox Theatre, looks at the timeless foibles of rulers and revolutionaries rather than directly skewering today's political situation.

There is a lot to like about this wildly ambitious, ebulliently vulgar new comedy: an enthusiastic cast, well-defined characters, colorful production design, snappy dialogue and a thorough lampooning of human weaknesses. But the overly long script is in desperate need of a good editor. Even allowing for a healthy allotment of Waiting for Godot-style redundancy, many points are flogged ad nauseum, to the detriment of the play. Much good stuff gets lost amidst the ceaseless swirl of repetition. Perhaps this highlights why a writer should not direct his own new play, as Jarvis has. Someone else should be able to yell, "Cut!"

The Once and Future Ubu is loosely inspired by the works of Alfred Jarry, a late-19th-century Frenchman who dabbled in many artistic ventures and died at 34, pickled by absinthe. Jarry's trilogy of Ubu plays, begun as teen parodies of a hated physics teacher, are early progenitors of the Dada, Surrealist and Absurdist literary movements. Jarvis' Ubu maintains the flavor of schoolboy satire, replete with flatulence sound effects and creatively crude epithets such as "By Aunt Jemima's vagina!" and "By Hitler's missing testicle!"

Pa and Ma Ubu, the quixotically despotic rulers of Poland, are bored and unhappy. On the throne for 26 years, the king is depressed that his people do not love him in spite of his tyrannical malfeasance. His queen, who cuckolds him on a regular basis, calls him "old, fat and partially retarded."

Meanwhile, a motley crew of three fashionably dressed society Naysayers, two khaki-clad Rebels and a safety-pinned Punk have tepid plans to overthrow the king. More concerned with catchy sloganeering than the consequences of their actions, this band frets over details: Assassinating the monarch might create troublesome stains. Revolution has to fit in with their social calendars.

The king doesn't trust anyone, including his key advisor, The Bank, and rightfully so. This greasy manifestation of the money machine is secretly supporting the rebels as part of his master plan for personal aggrandizement.

The king's ill-timed insult to the sultry Spanish ambassador leads to an invasion of Poland by a coalition of the French, Spanish and Canadian armies. At the same time, the American president is visiting, which is important for propping up the king's domestic and international reputation. So Pa Ubu is eager to distract the people -- perhaps with a scandal, or a new pop-culture phenomenon? Ma Ubu is eager for a threesome with the Prez and his Secret Service agent. The revolutionaries, meanwhile, plan to stage their coup at the state banquet. The aftermath is predictably bloody and, as always, the truth is swept under a rug -- literally.

Ubu's dialogue features some zingers and puns that would make the "Daily Show" writers proud. One of the Naysayers remarks, "The truth is spun until it's dizzy." The scandal that The Bank proposes leaking to the media: Senator Obloquy was caught fellating a baby pig -- yes, "sucking a suckling." The king rejects his advisors' counsel, because: "All the advice I've received so far has been poisoned with reason and twisted by the ludicrous grip of logic." He turns instead to friendly sock puppets for input.

Dynamic lead performances by Eric Olsen and Amanda Gustafson as Pa and Ma Ubu headlined a large, high-energy cast. Olsen played the cranky king with a moody scowl. Despite the mon-arch's disdain for his people and his grotesquely juvenile behavior, Olsen created a remarkably sympathetic portrayal; in some ways, the king is just a feckless, henpecked spouse looking for a little peace.

Gustafson created a ball-busting queen with raunchy appetites, sexual and gustatory. Her perennially pursed lips reflected her sourpuss attitude, and she worked her fat suit like a hormonally charged Jerry Springer guest. As fun as Olsen and Gustafson were to watch, however, even their shtick got a little old; their scenes -- mostly sitting on their thrones, complaining and insulting each other vituperatively -- went over and over the same ground.

As The Bank, Herbert van der Poll personified the smarmy slimebag you love to hate. He lisped and leered, hitching up his high-water pants, rocking on his heels, and slicking back his oily hair as he schemed. But The Bank's role is an example of the writer not knowing when to say when. We didn't need to see him stepping to the front of the stage three or four times to recap his dastardly plan. He's a greedy backstabber, in cahoots with the rebels. Got it the first time.

The character of The Witch also suffered from too many versions of the same scene. The role is a terrible weak spot in the play, badly conceived and poorly executed. While the idea of the soothsayer as a foil to the monarch is classic -- see Greeks, Ancient, and Shakespeare, William, in your drama dictionary -- this witch didn't fly. The monotonous joke is that she's a drunk whose predictions are as banal as a syndicated Gannett horoscope. Funny for one scene, but not for several. Andrea Krackow's over-the-top, Merlot-swigging, duck-boot-wearing sprite was a boorish bore, and her scenes dragged heavily on the show's pacing.

All the secondary characters turned in well-crafted performances. Shawn Lipenski made a magnetic Punk, all wild talk and crazy style but little action. Brett Hughes hissed and sneered smartly as Rebel 1, whose bandolier of bullets marked his virility and whose faraway gaze connoted his visionary status. Among his bold plans for overthrowing the king: "Trivialize him to death!"

Of the half-dozen actors who played multiple characters, the energetic Frank Zammiello stood out. He was loud and hyperactive as the raucous frat-boy Assassin -- grenade-laden yet wearing an "Ambassadors for Christ" T-shirt -- and silently threatening behind mirrored shades as the Secret Service agent, darting his head like a caffeinated reptile.

Also impressive in his five roles was Nathan Jarvis. He performed with goofy sincerity in the two song-and-dance numbers, one of which he composed: "The Pop Culture Phenomenon." The queen finds the disco routine so vapid that she pronounces, "I've seen diseased scrotums with more charisma." Jarvis was also irrepressibly charming in "The Blooming of the Daffodildoes," dancing a delicate tribute to spring, with two others, in a Robin Hood-green costume while singing ribald, offensive lyrics.

Isaac Wasuck's production design worked wonders with the Shoebox Theatre's small space. He effectively used the wide, shallow stage, separating the royals' throne area and the rebels' hay-strewn gathering place using a slightly projecting, folding screen with a stained glass window. Repeated irregular spiral motifs -- on the thrones and on Pa Ubu's belly -- unified the design. Wasuck's elaborate costumes featured innovative details, such as the golden fabric curlicues atop the king's crown.

Clever artistic flourishes and visual treats surprised and delighted throughout the play. Hung behind the thrones -- the king's, a gussied-up Mission-style chair; the queen's, a painted barstool -- were two beautiful portraits, painted by Adrian Tans, of the Ubus in all their sour ugliness. The American president was played by a large wooden dowel -- a literal Big Stick -- carried by the Secret Service agent. The banquet table, laden with glossy plastic and Styrofoam fruit, featured a smiling, fake-fur boar's head. The long arm of the media was a giant limb with a big, papier-mache hand holding a cardboard camera.

This homegrown work's ambitious scale is impressive, and the full-throttle commitment of the cast and production team was commendable. A serious editorial tune-up might ensure that The Once and Future Ubu comes around not just once but in the future as well.