Big Daddy Ubu falls short

Black comedy, plaid outfits: Caitlin Hammel and Joe Herman
Jon Behm

The absurdist response to the previous century was in part a mirthless chuckle laced with free-form anxiety about roaring technological progress, murderous political movements, and a fragmenting of mass culture. In the face of all that, the artist was left to hold up shards of a shattered mirror to the world with a giggle that betrayed a tenuous hold on sanity. When the world is crazy as shit, in other words, you might as well go a little nuts yourself.

We're in a new century, of course, but Josh Cragun reaches into the past with Big Daddy Ubu. Cragun (who adapts and directs) slams together Brecht's 1941 The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (written in the queasy shadow of Hitler's rise to power) with Alred Jarry's homicidal, scatological boor Pere Ubu, trying to create sparks that could illuminate where we're headed next.

The action begins with Big Daddy Ubu (Joe Herman) indulging in a rotten quarrel with his wife, Ma Ubu (Caitlin Hammel). Done up in fat suits, Herman and Hammel go at each other with insults and vulgarities. There's a twist this time, though, with Ma playing a bit of Lady Macbeth. It seems there's an Artichoke Alliance running the vegetable biz in their Chicago, and Ma suggests that if Daddy is indeed her daddy, he should apply his cutthroat skills toward taking it over.

From here the plot generally adheres to Brecht's story of a ruthless thug's rise to the top (a takeover in nearby Cicero stands in for the Austrian Anschluss; a warehouse fire serves as a metaphor for the burning of the Reichstag). But in this version we also get references to "insects of vegetable destruction" and Ubu at a podium making a case for his protection racket that broadly evokes the sales job leading up to the Iraq War.

While neither Brecht nor Jarry intended their work to go down easy, eventually we find a surplus of ideas that aren't matched by the product onstage. The show is too long by a sizable fraction (15 minutes shy of two hours without intermission), and much of the blame can be laid on a lack of editing: Long scenes of verbal machination bleed away the tension and subtext of horror that should be developing, leaving us distractedly trying to follow a superfluous plot when we should be feeling our hearts move into treacherous territory.

Herman, for his part, is mildly pompous as Ubu, yet hardly brimming with evil. Hammel fares a bit better as a dispenser and absorber of insults, and Mark Rehani turns in work of wide-eyed comprehension as the corrupted Dogsborough. Cragun's staging also opens up an inventive twist in a late scene, with characters coming round a stand of flowers and outlining the story's arc in rhyming couplets.

In the end, it's enticing to see work with this kind of ambition, and to revisit the complexities of a particular brand of horrible laughter. But this stuff has to produce a very specific burn in the guts, and we don't get there.

The considerably entertaining 3 Way! starts with a simple premise: Three friends (Dan Averitt, Jon Mikkelsen, and John Trones) wake up in bed together after a night of drunken debauchery, then try to sort things out. Life being a battleground of limited perspectives, each of them tells a different story—and we get to see all three acted out.

There's a breezy first act in which we get a bit of back story, but it's the sex farce, and the goofy differences in the three guys' perspectives (including a funny running sight gag around a game of Pictionary) that win the day. You won't be troubled by a single deep thought during 3 Way!, which is as it should be. 

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