Review: ‘King Ubu’ at Pointless Theatre Company

The season of giving? Joy to the world, peace on earth, and goodwill towards men? By the time the first snowflake actually falls, the holiday schmaltz can be as cloying as the Macy’s fragrance department a week before Christmas. Luckily for all of us Scrooges, there is a devilishly perfect antidote: Pointless Theatre’s bawdy, whooshing, wonderfully cynical new production of Alfred Jarry’s classic absurdist masterpiece King Ubu.

Madeline Key (Bourgelas). Photo by DJ Corey.

With an aesthetic that resembles a band of demented gypsies on designer drugs, and armed with a new translation – a self-made Google translation, that is – Pointless Theatre Company barrels ahead with this wickedly violent tale of Pa and Ma Ubu and their Shakespearean quest to seize the reins of power in Poland, the most absurd European country this side of Malta. Beneath all the side splitting weirdness is a razor sharp critique of corrupt, greedy, and self-serving leaders – an achingly relevant topic in Washington right now.

Despite Ubu’s cult status among theatre history buffs – the lore is that it caused riots in Paris in 1896, not least because the opening line is a scandalous “Shitter!” – this production of King Ubu feels very fresh. Long time designer and first time director Frank Labovitz keeps the pace appropriately manic and the story surprisingly cogent, despite Jarry’s bizarre plot twists (who could have seen that Bear in Act II coming?).

And Pointless, with the possible exception of Synetic, is the most skilled theatre in DC at dreaming up ingenious ways of storytelling. Most famously, they use puppets, which are on full brilliant display in King Ubu. Patti Kalil and Rachel Menyyuk craft crippled marionettes, squeaking finger puppets, and everything in between to help supplement a massive cast (the script helpfully dictates “The Whole Russian Army” as a character). Frank Labovitz also provides a versatile set made up of three mobile sets of stairs atop a faux wooden foam floor, a useful feature considering all the leaping and tumbling in the show.

Headlining this grotesque spectacle is Ma and Pa Ubu, played by Haely Jardas and Colin Connor, respectively. Connor and Jardas are the perfect dark clowns, falling down and wringing each other’s necks like a real live Punch and Judy. A protracted fight scene in Act II between Ma and Pa perfectly encapsulates the blend of violent horror and screeching comedy that King Ubu does so well. Good turns are also had by the Francophone co-schemer Bordure (Lee Gerstenhaber), the boyishly heroic Bourgelas (Madeline Key), and the Spaniard Cotice (Mary Myers), an acolyte of Pa Ubu, whose Iberian lisp had me in stitches.

Aside from the venerably vulgar ensemble, two other main features help inscribe Ubu with a distinctively memorable character. The first is the original music, played live by Mike Winch, who in reality is the hardest working performer on stage because he doesn’t stop playing from the pre-show until his final bow. The only thing that all of Winch’s instruments have in common is that they are completely absurd: the accordion, the kazoo, the slide whistle for God’s sake! The latter which, by the way, ends up coming in handy quite a bit during the big battle scene when cannons are falling (one fell in my lap, as a matter of fact).

L TO R: Nick Martin, Lee Gerstenhaber, Colin Connor, Haely Jardas, Mary Myers, and Scott Whalen. Photo by DJ Cory.

The second is the costuming, by Ivania Stack, which ranks among the most interesting and effective designs I’ve seen on stage all year. Imagine that you took peasants from some 19th century village, pushed them out of bed when they still had their night clothes on, fed them speed, and then threw them a few meager old timey costumes with which to perform Shakespeare. This somewhat approximates the strange and tantalizing attire that Stack has her ensemble wear. On top of that is a ghoulish makeup design that evokes the morning after a brutal party, or maybe a war. Either way, the whole aesthetic is dirty and tattered, like a bunch of grown up children playing make believe in a stylized slum. A stark and dim lighting design by Mary Keegan finishes off the gorgeously gross aesthetic.

Together with their most recent show, Hugo Ball: A Dada Puppet Adventure, Pointless is carving a niche for itself as DC’s premiere harbinger of the historical avant garde. But far from being a dusty museum piece, King Ubu, like Hugo, is a vibrant piece of storytelling that exemplifies all that live theatre – and only live theatre – has to offer. So get down to see Flashpoint and see Ubu before all that eggnog goes to your head – trust me, this turd has no need for polish.

King Ubu plays through January 7, 2017, at Pointless Theatre Company, performing at Flashpoint – 916 G Street NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets may be purchased at the door or online.

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