Review: Ubu Roi by Theatre UBC
Suffice to say: you’ve never seen anything quite like Ubu Roi.
The bizarre work was penned by Alfred Jaffy in 1896 as an absurd, grotesque critique of civilization: nailing humanity to the wall for its greed, arrogance, and short-sightedness. Its narrative is a ridiculous retelling of Macbeth, following the misadventures of vile, cartoonish Pere Ubu and his wife, Mere Ubu, as they overthrow and supplant the king of Poland, rule tyrannically, and haplessly defend the kingdom against an avenging son and the Russian army.
Naomi Vogt as Pere Ubu
In the house program, director Ryan Gladstone tells us that the very first word- Merdre (Shitter) – provoked outrage and dissent that could not be quelled for a full 20 minutes at the 1896 premiere (and resumed with each of the 33 utterances throughout the play).
The work’s themes of corruption and social failure may actually be more relevant today than at the time of writing (see the recent NASA-funded study, which identifies elitism as a cause for looming societal collapse); the shock factor that would have accompanied it however, has somewhat dulled through the decades.
To keep the play fresh and engaging, Gladstone has taken a novel and rather brilliant approach: presenting it as a play within a play. Therefore, rather than watching the corpulent Ubu stumble through a perverse realm, we watch the graduating class of The Jarry School for Wayward Girls mount as tossed-together staging as a final act of social commentary.
The choice removes alienation and disorientation, while infusing structure and allowing for greater engagement. While this may not be entirely faithful to original intent, it does not blunt the social commentary and creates a wealth of silly and splendid theatrical moments.
- Ghazal Azarbad and Naomi Vogt
The haphazard set-up is reflected in the wonderful detritus pile that is Sarah Melo’s set, Lynn Burton’s cobbled-together props, and the hodgepodge costumes of Amelia Ross. The playful creativity that follows from their design is some of the most inventive staging I have ever experienced: from epic battles conducted with flowers, plastic balls, and whisks (the latter of which Ubu identifies as ‘The Shitter Hook’) to distant journeys traversed via scenery on sticks to a truly unforgettable two-woman bear costume.
The meta-theatricality also means each cast member develops her own schoolgirl persona and has her moment to shine. Particularly memorable are Mercedes de la Zerda’s frustration over her constant, repeated deaths, Charlotte Wright’s beaming self-satisfaction at picking the right song to underscore a scene, and Catherine Fergusson’s ebullient and over-eager turn as Prince Bougrelas (pronounced Boogerless).
As the heart of the play, Naomi Vogt’s Pere Ubu is a delight to watch. She is reticent to don Ubu’s fat suit and self-consciously stumbles through scenes at the onset, but a gradual transformation occurs that ultimately ignites her performance with fanatic intensity.
Ubu Roi was a work ahead of its time- the seed from which almost absurd theatre sprung- and for this reason alone, any production merits experiencing. UBC’s staging is more than a theatre history lesson however, it is a colourful, insightful, and creative vision that heaps humour and entertainment on top of existing worth.
Ubu Roi runs until April 5, 2014 at the Frederic Wood Theatre.