No regular patron of the arts wants to be told they Don’t Get It. That’s a confession best left to the transgressor. So I’m fine freely admitting that, despite entering with a mind ready to conquer new planes of reality, I was flummoxed and a little angered by Jarry Inside Out, Spooky Action’s new biography of early 19th-century French surrealist Alfred Jarry. The playwright, Spooky Action artistic director Richard Henrich, clearly harbors a deep, enduring affection for his subject, having conceived of this play after struggling to translate one of Jarry’s novels into English. Don’t chalk up my anger at the finished product to an insufficient understanding of Jarry. It’s because I don’t like to be told, in dozens of different ways by eight actors, some puppets, and a fake owl, why I Don’t Get Him.
This is not to say I didn’t appreciate the play on several levels (see? I can get deep!). Lord knows the drama world needs more experimental biographies over cradle-to-grave snoozefests, particularly when the subject demands it, and Jarry certainly does. An early pioneer of absurdist theater and literature, Jarry liked referring to himself in the plural, used nonsensical labels for everything else, and excelled at mocking the rigid structures of polite society. In his most famous work, the play Ubu Roi, a crass, pudgy dingdong of a character screams obscenities at the audience.
Ubu provoked a riot in Paris, as depicted in an early scene in Jarry. But the truly telling moment comes before that, when a smirking Jarry deliberately mispronounces “ladies and gentlemen,” pauses for a laugh, and receives none. That’s the character in a nutshell. As played by Ryan Sellers, the artist comes off as an insufferable ass who thinks in riddles, talks to an owl and his own reflection, and amasses just enough followers and lovers to keep himself floating along until his death at 34. Given how Jarry soon insists everyone start calling him “Ubu,” it’s a wonder there weren’t more people after his head sooner.
Death is where Henrich’s play opens: Drawing on Jarry’s theory that the brain can continue working after the body has ceased, the show allows its hero to wander through his formative life experiences as though stumbling through Wonderland. (A giant loopy set adorned with Jarry’s designs is the impressive work of Giorgos Tsappas.) Jarry commands an army inside his head as he braves the uncertain lands of his imagination and his past, which blend together in ways both intriguing (he watches his own reflection seduce one of his lovers) and Capital-S Symbolic (puppets of Genghis Khan and Marco Polo quest for the Fountain of Youth). Very little of the dialogue makes sense. A strong supporting cast plays multiple roles, shepherded on and off the stage in lightning fashion so that director Catherine Tripp can jump to the next wild Jarryvision. A toothpick seems significant.
Not only does the play deserve a befuddled reaction, but Jarry himself surely wouldn’t have accepted any other. During the climax, as a manifestation of the artist’s subconscious played by Ian LeValley tossed seminal volumes of philosophy and Shakespeare into a latrine and then rubbed his body in fake poop, the woman next to me made a sound of disgust. What higher praise could there be for Ubu? Come and Get It while the shit still stinks.
1810 16th St. NW. $25–$35. (202) 248-0301. spookyaction.org.