Scat Songs

One Hundred Years of Pure Shit:
A Centennial Aberration of Ubu Roi

Bedlam Theatre

Lendra//Revolute

American Aesthetic Institute

PEEPEE CACA! PEEPEE CACA! With a vomitous belch, all hail Bedlam Theatre's One Hundred Years of Pure Shit, the "centennial aberration" (read: 100th-anniversary adaptation) of Alfred Jarry's proto-absurdist mess Ubu Roi. Three feet across at the middle, vulgar, stinking, and profane, Père Ubu (Frank Siegle) and bulbously breasted Mere Ubu (Boo Freely) play at being Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth. In collaboration with Captain Fasshole, Ubu murders the King of Poland and sons Pisspot and Bloodclot; Prince Boogersnot and Queen Vageena Dentata escape.

Respecting the seriousness of this tale, Bedlam Theatre loads the stage with all forms of lunar barking: banjo wailing, videos, papier mâché masks, naked men hanging from the rafters, a puppet set like Mr. Rogers's Land of Make Believe. Ubu's pustular army have phallic noses and dicks for nightsticks; they beat puppets and puppeteers alike with battle axes. Filthy words are uttered in abundance. More fun is had than in any six months of normal theater.

Snacking at the post-mayhem reception, I overheard a cast member disparaging Jarry's text: "The original play is mostly stupid." He's right, in a sense, although the word "sophomoric," might be more apt (and "puerile," better still). What I believe the cast member was grappling with was why Ubu Roi, "centennial aberration" aside, deserves attention in the here and now. Director John Francis Bueche and script co-"aberrator" Corrie Zoll attempt to answer that by inserting a monologue in which a dreaming Ubu prognosticates the litany of Jarry's mad successors: Dada, existentialism, theater of the absurd, beat (they're wrong here), punk, and Beavis and Butthead, too.

It is the only false note in the production. Bedlam seemingly fear they cannot communicate the shock a period audience must have felt when Ubu first waddled on stage and yelled "Merdre!"(roughly translated, "Shittr!"). And they can't; theater, dead or alive depending on whom you ask, may no longer even own that capability. Yet there are intimations of the frightful power that once lurked behind the potty humor. Near the end of the play, Père Ubu wages a war of attrition against his own subjects, forcing nobility, peasants, magistrates, and financiers to leap into an 8-foot red satin "snatch," leaving him king of absolutely nothing. At which point Ubu wages war on neighboring Russia and their vodka-bottle king. During this chaotic scene of screaming and howling and papier mâché heads rolling around the stage like marbles, Bedlam projects a montage of holocaust footage and assorted other horrors. A cheap piece of agit-prop, it would seem, and yet singularly appropriate.

For it is a critique of this supremacy of savagery that hid in Jarry's play. In the spring of 1916, at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, young dadaists would read scenes from Ubu Roi, espousing an art and philosophy beyond the "self-destructive systems humanity had fashioned in imitation of the natural order" (as described by Greil Marcus in his "secret history," Lipstick Traces). Similarly, the projected rows of leering skulls and skeletons by Bedlam scenic designer "JAO" recall the "Dada Death" collages of Berlin dadaist George Grosz. Returning to an earlier objection, then, the script doctors need not bother force-feeding us the play's legacy; it's up there, slide-projected, for all to see.

While a teenaged Alfred Jarry first conceived of Ubu as a particularly nasty parody of a repellent high school physics teacher, by the time he had finished, the work emerged as one of the first of a movement to speak an emphatic and flatulent No to everything put in its path. So happy fucking birthday, Ubu Roi, and congratulations to Bedlam Theatre for throwing a hilarious anniversary party.

Over six productions (plus a journal, plus a gallery), the American Aesthetic Institute has proven that neither critical hostility nor public indifference will run them out of town. I can admire that. In this spirit, writer and director Jay Sheib presents Lendra//Revolute--"a vertiginous theatrical ice-breaker both gruesomely poetic and gracefully dynamic." If you can figure out what that means, you may enjoy the Faustian trials of young Lendra, forced into hiding after her fascist brother Jason commits parricide at her wedding. I have a terrible suspicion that the double backslash in the title ("//") is supposed to stand for "those ancient clowns, God and Mephistopheles," who don clown suits and wager on Lendra's soul. All of which reaches a nadir when God, neck in noose, is asked whether God believes in God. Incredibly, Lendra//Revolute is even more pretentious than that sounds. From the (not-unimpressive) baroque, metered dialogue to the preposterous premise, one question resounds: If this is a joke, why isn't anyone laughing? CP

One Hundred Years of Pure Shit: A Centennial Aberration of Ubu Roi runs at Red Eye Collaboration through February 4 (870-0309);Lendra//Revolute runs through February 3 at the Franklin Avenue Theatre (870-1694).

 
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