Potty humor among young boys is, apparently, nothing new or particularly American. Over a century ago, one French boy found inspiration in his bloated, pretentious high school physics instructor, leading to a series of plays. In this stunningly visual and exuberantly musical production at A Noise Within, Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi” leaps in and out of the gutter—jumping as high as the Theater of the Absurd.
We meet Pa Ubu (Alan Blumenfeld) before he is king, and the throne he’s sitting on is porcelain. Not a particularly patient man, he can’t take turns with his wife, Ma Ubu (Deborah Strang). She has her own porcelain throne. Not one to waste time, he’s eating. His first word? Shite!
When the play premiered in 1896, this first utterance shocked audiences. But this ensemble must try a little harder to keep the attention of modern audiences. Under the direction of Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and the musical direction and piano playing of David O, this play, translated by Cyril Connolly and Simon Watson Taylor, dips into areas that Jarry inspired — the Dadas, the Surrealists, the Theater of the Absurd and the Marx Brothers — and adds some pop music sensibilities.
As the title suggests, Pa Ubu will go on to be king, but first he must, at the urging of the avaricious Ma Ubu, kill King Wenceslas (Mitchell Edmonds) with the help of Captain Macnure (Stephen Rockwell). Once king, Pa Ubu increases the taxes and “de-brains” all dissenters until the people rebel. Although this is generally considered a parody of Macbeth and a commentary on the idiocy of warmongers, the two acts are 90 minutes long without intermission. Ubu doesn’t die but ends up sailing into exile.
Leon Wiebers’ costume design evokes a past era and edges toward grotesque architecture on Pa and Ma Ubu. Talk about saddlebag hips on Pa Ubu! Wiebers’ intent with Ma Ubu is to make her an old bag — everything sags. Ken Booth’s lighting design adds a dramatic elegance that sharply contrasts Blumenfeld’s gravely-voiced oafish antics and Strang’s slatternly shrew.
This isn’t as puerile as say, “Dumb and Dumber,” and it certainly strips down the politics of war to the bare idiocy of greedy, power-mad men. Existing somewhere between slapstick, artistic intellectualism and vaudeville, this well-packaged production might even explain France’s affection for Jerry Lewis.
“Ubu Roi” continues until May 7, playing in repertory at A Noise Within, at the Masonic Temple Building, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Tickets are $32 to $36. Call (818) 240-0910, ext. 1, or visit www.ANoiseWithin.org.