“You stink, Ubu,” says Ma Ubu. That opinion is a comical understatement, and in Ubu Rex, under- stated—and underhanded—comedy abounds. Ubu is a tyrant and an ogre, and Ma Ubu is his opportunistic wife; together they bicker and scheme for power in a fictionalized Eastern Europe. Ubu Rex was written by Alfred Jarry, a pioneer of the Theater of the Absurd more than a hundred years ago. But as adapted and directed by Oakley Hall III at Steamer No. 10, the play’s political satire proved its timelessness—and having the characters enacted by puppets is so in keeping with its gonzo mayhem that it’s not surprising that even in Jarry’s own time live actors were replaced by marionettes. Last weekend, collaborator Ed Atkeson and his Firlefanz puppet troupe produced a perfect fit of puppetry, staging and voicing, even for the play’s most challenging action scenes. And there’s a lot of action: In a lampoon of the insanity of political ideologies dominating society, the id-dominated Ubu destroys an entire realm.
In the opening act, Ubu (voice by Steven Patterson) bemoans his lack of status. Once a king, he is now a dragoon in Poland. With the appalled but greedy support of his wife (voice by G.G. Roberts) and his loyal henchman, McTurdy (voice by Joe Kraussman), Ubu hatches a plot to murder good king Wenceslas and take the throne—and the royal treasury. But even before the murder most foul (Jarry’s play has echoes of Macbeth and other Shakespearean tragedies), the Ubus’ putrid personalities are hilariously established, with tremendous credit going to Patterson’s whiny, childlike voice and nimble phrasing and Robert’s acid-dripped, yodel-hoo cadences. Voicing is especially important considering the play’s syllabic humor: Hall’s modernized dialogue is a mix of infantile outbursts (“I wanna make some laws now!” wails Ubu before killing all the judges) and tongue-twisting, sophisticated verbiage (such as a play on “veracity” and “voracity,” rhymed with “indigestibility,” in a scene involving a bear attack in a cave), and provided nonstop, thought-provoking amusement (as when Ma Ubu explains to her simpleton husband that if he doesn’t distribute some treasure to the starving populace the people won’t have any money for him to collect as taxes).
At once gruesome and winsome (like the play itself), the puppet cast ranged from the life-size Ubus with their Mr. Potato Head-shaped faces and roly-poly bodies (the rotund puppets were maneuvered on wheels) to the nobly realistic head of the king, to the bizarre visages of a multitude of minor characters, including the phallic face of Ma Ubu’s gigolo and the tiny, floppy-legged financiers who are executed in a boiling vat. One especially whimsical touch was a scepter made from a rubber-strip mop, with similar strips being used for the hair of brave and rebellious Prince Buggerlass (voice by Greg Haymes). The minimalist set design was effectively evocative, especially with the play’s rapid changes in locations. In between acts, characters sometimes “es caped” from jail or other predicaments by creeping around the front of the closed curtain.
Equally important to the production’s raucous tension was the soundtrack by composer Mary Jane Leach (with programming assistance by Michael Eck), in which the comic placement of well-known compositions such as the William Tell Overture and the Hallelujah Chorus were further demented by being atmospherically distorted. But as enjoyable as the production was in all its Fractured Fairy Tales-style elements, it didn’t lose sight that Ubu’s signature line—“Isn’t injustice just as good as justice?”—is more than a farcical one-liner.