YOHANA DESTA / THE EAGLE
If you’ve never heard of the play “Ubu Rex,” there’s one thing you need to know: The very first word of the play is a loud and dismal “Shitter!” exclaimed by a man wearing only tight, white underwear. If that doesn’t set you up for the rest of the show, then you’re in for quite the surprise.
The play, written by Alfred Jarry in 1896, was originally intended to hold a mirror to society and show the upper class that they were corrupt hypocrites who couldn’t care less about the people who needed help. It also has a plethora of Shakespearean influences.
“He [playwright Alfred Jarry] is literally shitting on the theater,” said director Cara Gabriel, an AU assistant professor in the performing arts department. “He is taking a big shit on the values and principles and morals of society.”
The AU Department of Performing Arts is staging the play and will be showing Feb. 16-18 in the Greenberg Theatre.
“Our hero is actually an anti-hero,” Gabriel said. “The people who we think are supposed to be the good guys are just as despicable as our antagonists.”
The plot revolves around Pa Ubu (played by Tim Harmey), a bored rich man who really wants to be king. He and his scheming wife, Ma Ubu (played by Jordan Van Clief) hatch a plan to kill King Wenceslas (played by Adi Stein) and any heirs in order to claim the throne. However, while Pa Ubu’s plot to kill the king works, he doesn’t manage to kill the prince, Boggerlas (played by Shannon McArdle), who escapes to the mountains.
What ensues is, simply put, madness.
But to be fair, it was madness from the very beginning.
“I couldn’t say that he’s a hero, or a villain because he just acts out of self interest and what is best for him,” said McArdle of his Boggerlas. “I think that’s what the play speaks to: we all act out of self interest and it’s not really for any moral good.”
“Ubu Rex” is a hard play to encapsulate. It’s got a kooky ensemble cast akin only to cult classics with wild imagery like “Alice in Wonderland” or “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” albeit without the musical aspect. Ma and Pa Ubu are wickedly sexual and immature beings, with Pa spending a good portion of the play in thick white briefs and oversized glasses. Adding to his bizarre appearance is the fact that his weapon is often a red plunger.
Pa’s entourage includes three schoolgirls wielding machine guns and sporting freakishly wide smiles, servant girls in matching outfits, joined at the arm and a minion who looks more like an S&M addict with a muzzle and shiny chains around his torso.
“The play itself is always done in a very clownish way, as Alfred Jarry and the original production sort of intended,” Gabriel said. “My hope with this production is that it will be clownish, but I wanted [our actors] to be more recognizable and more contemporary.”
While Gabriel finds it difficult to describe the play’s genre, given its various elements of silliness mixed with serious political commentary, she’s certain it’ll make audiences laugh.
“One of the cast members, Megan St. John, called it the ‘South Park’ of the 1890s,” Gabriel said. “I’ve seen four weeks of rehearsal of this play and I still laugh out loud every time.”
“I hear her all the time laughing, and I’m like, ‘you’ve seen this joke a hundred times!’” said Michael Litchfield, who plays Macnure, Pa Ubu’s ally. “[But] we also keep making stuff up as we go along and find new ways to be funny.”
Despite its high comedic factor mixed in with its bizarrely intriguing imagery, “Ubu Rex” feels like the utmost organized chaos. Characters are running all around the stage, jumping and tumbling over the run-of-the-mill playground set, but it all has purpose.
“I think that we should constantly be challenging ourselves,” Gabriel said, speaking on Rex’s many layers and difficulty to direct. “When I picked this play … what I said to the students was [that] there are a lot of things about this play I’m not sure of yet … and we’re going to find it together.”
View the Tumblr page for this show here.