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There are two kinds of modern theater: everything done in the wake of Ubu Roi and everything done in spite of it. It’s considered the original avant-garde play, an absurdist comedy from 1896 that creates Punch-and-Judy farce out of murder, war, and political purges. At its premiere, a well-heeled Parisian audience began rioting from the script’s first word—merdre, or “shit” with an R tacked on, just to let everyone know the very language itself would be up for grabs.And then there are all the fart jokes….
Of course, the bourgeoisie despised Ubu Roi: That was the point. But the right people (such as Cocteau and Apollinaire) were blown away; and the Surrealists and Futurists later thought of the playwright, Alfred Jarry, as their Adam. In fact, Picasso got his pistols from Jarry. (You know, the ones Pablo used to fire into the air whenever he found a conversation boring.) So anybody putting on this play now has a fair amount to live up to.
To its credit, the Rorschach Theatre doesn’t seem to give a merde about all that. Director Kathleen Akerley and her colleagues hit the ground running with scissors—irreverently cutting and pasting lines, turning six actors into dozens of characters with witty frenzy. But that doesn’t mean their Ubu Roi amounts to much. The company’s spark and smarts come through in spite of the play, instead of in its service. Like those original audience members, you’ll either love this production or loathe it; unlike them, you won’t be challenged an inch.
Rorschach’s all-male cast is already busy as you take your seat in the Casa del Pueblo (the original portion of Calvary Methodist Church, where the company has been regularly performing). On a stage dressed with just a few lengths of red velvet and a song by the Velvet Underground, guys who look like frat brothers are pulling things together for a party or a show—porting in a trunk filled with costumes, pushing around tables and chairs, storming in with vacuum cleaners as Dan Via (who plays Pere Ubu) reads over his part one last time.
The furniture keeps getting rearranged, though, well past the point when you understand that its arrangement doesn’t matter. And this arbitrary spirit is picked up by the deadpan, anti-realistic reading of the first scene, in which Mere Ubu (played by Scott McCormick) goads her doltish husband into plotting to kill the king of Poland and assume the throne. “Shit…fuck…abortion,” Pere calls out tentatively at the beginning, casting about for any word that could now deliver a scintilla of Jarry’s shock value. For a few intriguing minutes, you think this Ubu Roi might be about the impossibility of putting on Ubu Roi today, for a culture that absorbs shock like a bumper.
But Akerley and company soon settle for more conventional pleasures: plenty of contemporary references, for one thing, and a roughhouse playfulness that uses spoons as weapons and lots and lots of noisy fake dying. (Several cast members come out wearing knee pads, so you know it’s going to be a bumpy ride.) Jarry, of course, intended Ubu Roi as both outrageous and juvenile. Rorschach, though, can’t resist the temptation to turn this silly plot—a Macbeth on acid, with Pere Ubu succeeding the slain King Venceslas (Jason Lott) and then overtaxing those he doesn’t immediately liquidate—into just a series of meat hooks on which to hang theatrical chops.
The tiny cast is almost talented and inspired enough to deserve the indulgence. Switching among innumerable roles on the fly, the actors amaze with their quick-change artistry. At one point, they’re playing a murderous army and its peasant victims simultaneously. And Akerley’s rapid-fire direction is perfect for Rorschach’s shoestring budget. She tosses out one theatrical joke after another like a directorial Henny Youngman: Woody Allen here, super-slow motion there, masks and swinging doors everywhere. Her best moment arrives at the end of the first act, when Poland’s nobles, magistrates, and financiers dive to their deaths into a trap door under Pere Ubu and become ingested by the new king’s robe, part of his enormous, pink, writhing body politic.
Too often, though, Akerley apes Monty Python, encouraging her cast to present an encyclopedia of tics, palsies, muggings, and tongues wagging so far out of heads they seem ready to achieve orbit. When Pere and Mere invite Captain Bordure (James Denvil) and his company over for a regicide-planning dinner, Akerley has the soldiers nearly devour Mere’s hand before turning on the actual food in a SWAT-team maneuver. This sort of thing is good for a skit, but most audiences will probably droop under two hours’ weight of it. And the flow of new ideas eventually does peter out.
Akerley also allows Via to underperform—to the point of murmuring—the wonderfully mangled language and idiocy that the Symbolist poets of the time adored (as when he threatens opponents with “decapitation of the neck and head”). Instead of the village fool, he comes off as fey and pathetic, directing an interminable second-act war against Russia like an exhausted fashion designer after a week of runway shows. Without the full ballast of this role, Ubu Roi loses much of its richness. We’re caught between the nonsense plot and the self-consciousness of the performances, without much space in which to find ourselves.
Still, outsize risk-taking like this has to be lauded. The rest of the cast is brilliantly versatile and often just brilliant, especially Lott as (a) a Reagan-mimicking Venceslas; (b) an invading czar played as Bill Clinton, complete with Russian fur hat that looks disturbingly like Slick Willie’s actual hair; (c) a slinky mermaid who entices sailors to their deaths; and (d) about 25 other people, who die in various horrible ways.
Costume designer Michele Reisch trots out mint-colored muumuus, cabbage-leaf hats, and ammo vests armed with flatware. Sound designer Matthew Frederick deploys everything from Prokofiev to hockey-arena anthems to Whoopee Cushions. Mention must also be made of the two cheetah-print slippers with eyes that serve as Venceslas’ children (although they can’t hold a candle to the sock puppet who played Joyce Carol Oates in Woolly Mammoth’s Recent Tragic Events, in a performance that will win a Helen Hayes Award if justice still breathes).
Ubu Roi may have been a bigger bite than Rorschach could chew, but how many other companies in the area would have even opened their mouths? This group consistently chooses tough (often historic) material and brings exuberance and intelligence to its choices. Whether Ubu Roi can ever be more than a skunk at a long-gone garden party remains an open question. Any play that can get big laughs out of a line like “How sad it is to find oneself alone at 14 with a terrible vengeance to pursue” ought to have a place in the world. CP