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When it comes to adaptations, most playwrights will pick a script they’re fond of. Not John Morogiello. For his latest politically charged production, the 41-year-old playwright opted to adapt a play he disliked as much as the presidential administration he was setting out to mock.
“It’s one of those plays I had to read in college,” Morogiello says of Alfred Jarry’s 1896 satire Ubu Roi, the inspiration for Bushwa: A Modern Ubu. Jarry’s original play—which he wrote at age 15 as retribution against a teacher he despised—was the first in a trilogy of vulgar low-comedies about European society, and it’s often credited with being the forebear of the absurdist and surrealist movements.
“I hate avant-garde theater,” Morogiello says. “So one of the reasons I wrote this was to parody that sort of theater.”
Morogiello, a Montgomery Village, Md., resident, originally came up with the concept for Bushwa in March 2004. “I was going through Ubu, and immediately, I began to see parallels between this character who Jarry calls the personification of all that is base and stupid in mankind and the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.,” Morogiello says. His modernized Ubu casts President George W. Bush as the incompetent protagonist who worms his way into a position of power. However, given Bush’s declining approval ratings leading up to the November 2004 presidential election, Morogiello was concerned that his play would soon be irrelevant.
“I didn’t think it would have a life beyond the election,” Morogiello says. “So I didn’t want to write it unless a theater was going to guarantee me a production.” Morogiello exhausted his list of theater contacts—but, in the end, his decision on which company to work with was an easy one. “I offered it to everyone,” he says. “[Georgetown Theater Company] were the only ones who said ‘yes.’”
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Georgetown Theater Company Artistic Director Catherine Aselford, 45, says her interest in the play stems from Morogiello’s contemptuous take on both the source material and the subject. “Most of the time, when people do [Ubu], they treat it with reverence and awe because it’s avant-garde,” Aselford says. “We’re taking our inspiration from Warner Bros. cartoons. There’s a lot of action.” The script isn’t all absurdity and slapstick, however. Heavier topics—such as the war in Iraq, warrantless wiretapping, and the Valerie Plame scandal—lend the play a darker, if no less humorous, edge.
“Modern politics is a comedy show,” Aselford says. “It’s a sad comedy show.”
This summer—almost two years after a successful first run during the Kennedy Center’s 2004 Page-to-Stage Festival—a revised Bushwa ran for two nights at the Goethe-Institut as part of the inaugural Capital Fringe Festival. Morogiello’s play sold out both performances. “There were 90 seats in the house and we reserved 10 for comp, so we sold 80 seats,” Aselford says. “We had to turn people away.”
One of the people who did manage to get a seat was a Reston-based producer, Aselford says, who offered to partially bankroll the play—if they could find a decently sized theater that would stage the production in the fall. Not an easy task, considering that, in late July, most major theaters are already booked for the fall.
“I immediately started calling, trying to line up space,” Aselford says. Eventually, she was able to come to an agreement with Round House Theatre for two weeks at the company’s Silver Spring location.
As the play has gotten closer to its Friday, Oct. 6, opening performance, it has seen numerous last-minute changes to the script and a change in cast—Morogiello will be assuming the roles left open by a regular Bushwa actor who is unavailable. But both Aselford and Morogiello remain confident that their short-notice, limited-engagement, modest-budget production will continue the play’s string of success—even if they both consider Jarry’s original material less-than-stellar.
“He basically ripped the plot off from Macbeth,” Aselford says. “I’m not crazy about it.” —Matthew Borlik
Bushwa: A Modern Ubu runs Friday, Oct. 6, through Sunday, Oct. 15, at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. $20. (800) 838-3006.