Hedonism at its best

Absurdist mirth and wonder in Ubu Roi
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 27, 2010

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TALES OF RIBALDRY The revels of the ensemble cast of Ubu Roi. CREDIT JONATHAN DONNELL

In 1888, a 15-year-old French kid and a couple of his buddies wrote a script, modeling its gross and laughable anti-hero on a school teacher whom they had it in for. In 1896, when the play finally premiered as a marionette show in Paris, a riot erupted in the theater after the very first word of the show ("merdre") was spoken. Now, a hundred years and some change later, adventurous local thespians revive this sensation in Portland. The play is Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi (King Ubu), a smirking, outrageous, giddily scatological satire of bourgeois urges at their most base, and it is fantastically hammed up under the direction of Tess Van Horn. Its raucous cast of humans and puppets performs the proto-Absurdist comedy at SPACE Gallery on February 4.

The title character is the fat, stupid, greedy, lewd Ubu, played by a monstrously be-paunched Ian Carlsen. Aiding and abetting him is his similarly disposed wife, played by the Phoenix's own Deirdre Fulton, fitted with an equally monstrous rump (prosthetics by costume designer Kate Law are a hoot). The huge-bellied Père Ubu and the huge-assed Mère Ubu spout obscenities, alternately insult and dry-hump each other, and feed guests a taste of Ubu's ass-crack on a spoon. Naturally, they also feel themselves entitled to bigger things in the world, and being named Count of Sodomy just isn't a big enough of a deal for Ubu. So, goaded on by his wife, he schemes to seize the throne of the King of Poland. What follows looks a little like a substantially less likeable Homer Simpson playing the lead in a mash-up of Macbeth, Richard III, and Hamlet.

Ubu is a creature of utter self-interest, devoted to fulfilling his every immediate, thoughtless want. And what fun to watch the diabolically versatile Carlsen have at this entertaining abomination — his Ubu growls with money-hunger and grunts with lust as he struts his huge gut around. As his wanton, tasteless wife, Fulton is marvelously bombastic; together they make the Ubu marriage a rutting, rubbing, snickering tour de force of vulgarity.

Supporting them is a tight ensemble cast whose members play numerous characters and wield locally made puppets (by Ian Bannon, Seren Huus, and Claire Guyer). Everyone in this show is clearly reveling in it, and it's a delight to get caught up in the sheer sophomoric absurdity of their enterprise. Props are winks to the ridiculous, like the oversized cut-outs of meats Ubu gnaws on and the intentionally flaccid cardboard swords. Likewise is staging playfully over-the-top with slapstick, and includes some hilarious slow-mo race scenes (complete with voice effects), and Ubu going to war in a shopping-cart horse, announcing, "I am going to war! And I will kill everybody!"

Regress a little, guffaw along, and project onto Ubu anyone you might have it in for. Me, I particularly relished Carlsen's delicious Jack Nicholson-ish grin as King Ubu tells his court, "Gentlemen, I would now like to proceed to finance."

Megan Grumbling can be reached at mgrumbling@hotmail.com.

UBU ROI | by Alfred Jarry | Directed by Tess Van Horn | Presented at SPACE Gallery, in Portland | on February 4 | space538.org

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