Ubu Roi, playing now through February 23 at the Cutting Ball Theater on Taylor St., is a new vision of the historic work by the Cutting Ball’s artistic director Rob Melrose.
When Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi first opened in Paris in 1896, a riot broke out with the utterance of the first word “Merdre,” a word invented by Jarry himself, making a verb out of the French word for shit. This should give a faint idea of just how groundbreaking this work was in its debut. And while there may not have been any rioting during the performance in San Francisco, the Cutting Ball’s new production of the absurd classic goes a long way in capturing the irreverence and manic energy of the original.
The play (a parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth) follows the horrid Father Ubu, who is pushed by his wife, Mother Ubu, to slay the king of Poland and take the crown. Once in power his greed pushes him to slaughter the people of Poland for their money. Meanwhile, forces gather against him, led by the son of the slain king and Ubu’s former henchman, who seek to dethrone the tyrant.
This show historically has had its staging very much in the hands of the director, and in this version, helmed by Russian director Yury Urnov, all action now takes place in a modern luxury kitchen. Mother and Father Ubu are now a wealthy couple who play out their fantasies of greed through the roles of Jarry’s gruesome pair. The actors are all in formal dress and the props are all kitchenware and various foodstuffs. This simple staging proves to be incredibly versatile, with the counters being rearranged constantly to illustrate different places of action, people popping in and out of various cupboards, and actors walking and rolling over countertops.
David Sinaiko, an associate artist at Cutting Ball, provides the standout performance as Father Ubu. Equal parts detestable and pitiable; Sinaiko plays Ubu with a spastic and eclectic energy. He roams about the space, he mounts the cupboards and smashes fruits and vegetables. At all points your eyes are drawn to him, even if juggling and all other manner of action is occurring at the same time as his monologues.
The other actors are impressive in their range, as each must play several roles to fill out the cast of characters. Nathaniel Justiniano must be given particular notes, as he transitions seamlessly from the proper and masculine Bordure to the effete and juvenile Bougrelas, while still keeping with the pace of the rapid and spastic scene changes.
But what makes this show stand out most of all is the way it flouts more traditional, realist conceptions of theater as actors imitating life for the audience of pure spectators. Whole scenes are performed by puppets made of food, including one interlude acted out by what looked like bell peppers wrapped in linen napkins. The audience is given an active role, such as in one scene where audience members are chosen to read lines off of cue cards. And in the final scene the script is read word for word by the actors including the stage directions and the name of the character speaking each line.
Through these touches there is a total breakdown in the expectation of what the theater is meant to consist of. Lines between audience and performer are crossed, and the realism of characters and performance is purposefully cast aside. Keeping much in the intention of Jarry’s original, this play makes us question what is possible or even allowed in modern theater. Asking questions of theater’s role that are as pertinent now as when the show premiered more than a century ago.
Ubu Roi is at Cutting Ball Theater on Taylor St. through February 23. More info.