Ubu Rex at American University

If it weren’t for American University’s production of Ubu Rex there wouldn’t be riotous laughter and absolute absurd chaos flaming its way across the stage of the Greenberg Theatre. An abstract notion of ridiculousness written by Alfred Jarry and directed by Dr. Cara M. Gabriel, this bizarre riot where the hero acts like a swine and gets away with presents a stunning series of crazy moments that will keep the audience, albeit confused, on the edge of their seats with thunderous laughter.

Pa Ubu (Tim Harmey) and King Wenceslas (Adi Stein). Photo by Catherine Gannon.

Pa Ubu (Tim Harmey) and King Wenceslas (Adi Stein). Photo by Catherine Gannon.

From the very moment you see the set you know it’s going to be an adventure. Scenic Designer Meghan Raham places a full-sized and fully functioning playground jungle-gym set right in the middle of the stage –  complete with twirling tube slide and several swings. There’s also a separate tire swing and a sandbox with real sand – literally creating playtime for these actors as they journey through this twisted theatrical endeavor. The walls of the set are painted a bright blue with fluffy white clouds, accenting the skyward delusions of the title character. Raham has developed a complexity of entertainment through child’s play – letting the characters run amuck in this literal playground. And the costumes only add to the absurdity. Pa Ubu (Tim Harmey) himself spends most of the show mostly naked, outfitted in his golden blood-splattered, white fur-trimmed cape, wearing little more than a pair of tighty whities with the signature Ubu swirl, and a golden crown upon his head. Costume Designer Elizabeth Ennis is responsible for such goofy getups and many more throughout the show. The Merry Men, soldiers of Ubu’s devoted army, are dressed up like school girls from their plaid skirts and knee-high socks up to their ties and regulation braided plaits. There’s even a servant man, in this translation deemed sex slave, Gyron (Michael Poandl) who wears black leather chaps, a studded bondage harness and a ball-gag for the duration of the show. It suits the show to perfection.

There are so many explosive moments of chaos that the entire stage is constantly filled with motion and sound, even if you aren’t familiar with the show or cannot so readily follow along it is aesthetically stimulating and you won’t be able to tear your eyes away. The director appears to have loosed upon her cast the tall order of having fun while working and it shows liberally. You want to jump on stage and join the fights, fling yourself as the actors do from swing to slide and back again. And Dr. Gabriel ensures they make good use of all the fun bits of the setting. During the execution scene, were Ubu (Harmey) begins a series of unruly and unrighteous executions, he marches all of his noblemen, judges, and financiers up the back of the jungle gym and then has them roughly shoved down the tube slide. When they come out the bottom they’re covered in gore and blood where Ma Ubu (Jordan Van Clief) is forced to drag their lifeless bodies from the stage. But perhaps the most intense moment that delivers the best use of the stage is during the Russian attack. The Tsar (Adi Stein) and several Russians attack Ubu (Harmey) and his loyal supporters at their encampment, streaking through the audience and bombing the stage with toilet paper grenades from many aisles of seating far back in the house. As the Russians storm the stage utter pandemonium ensues; actors fleeing into the sandbox, climbing to the top of the playgrounds wooden supports – tire swings are used as attack catapults and the whole scene falls to explosive hell in a hand basket. It is uproarious and shocking and you won’t be able to look away.

There is overt sexuality oozing from Pa Ubu (Tim Harmey) in almost every scene and interaction that he has. Harmey is constantly thrusting his hips at someone, and inappropriately slobbering kisses over both men and women. Harmey lives up this ridiculous character with confidence, strutting his mostly naked self proudly around the stage throughout the whole show, even when playing the coward. His rude and even obscene physical performance is matched by his antagonist, Prince Boggerlas (Shannon McArdle) who instead of crude humor presents his character with an over-dramatic flair for the effeminate.

King Wenceslas (Adi Stein). Photo by Catherine Gannon.

The chaos never stops and the special effects add to the hilarity – with buckets full of blue glitter and spritzer bottles of water for the boat scene at the finale. And when the Russians attack the toilet paper grenades streak through the air trailing streamers of blinding white two-ply. A splendid chance for audiences to dive into abstract absurdist territory without having to take too big of a risk – Ubu Rex is worthy of a king’s viewing.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with one intermission.

Ubu Rex played its final performance on February 18, 2012. For other shows and artistic events happening at American University, visit them online or call (202) 885-ARTS.