by Gail M. Burns
If you have studied dramatic literature, you know that Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu roi” holds a seminal place in the inexorable transition from 19th to 20th century theatre. If you haven’t studied dramatic literature, you have probably never heard of it. And I would guess that the majority of people fall into the latter category, which means that one of the challenges facing Confetti Stage and me is explaining what an “Ubu play” is and why theatre folk get so excited about them.
Part of the appeal of Jarry’s work is that he first wrote it when he was 15, and it is a thoroughly adolescent, some would say juvenile, work skewering authority in a way only a teenager could. The people who are assigned to read “Ubu roi” are generally under 21, and so for many it is the right play at the right time. It is decidedly rude, crude and lewd. It caused a riot when it was first publicly presented in Paris in 1896, and it is still considered so impolite that it is seldom produced outside of academic circles and the political street theatre to which it gave birth.
So it is a bold move to present a commercial production of an Ubu play, and for that Confetti Stage is to be congratulated. Notice that they are not presenting one of Jarry’s Ubu plays (he wrote three), but a modern adaptation of Jarry (1873-1907) by John Morogiello entitled “Bushwa: A Modern Ubu.” Casting a certain sitting president as Père Ubu, Morogiello has created a chilling satire that is as helplessly hilarious as it is hopelessly true to life.
In “Ubu Roi,” which in turn contains strong parallels to Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” the cowardly, dim-witted Père Ubu is egged on by his wife Mère Ubu to assassinate the royal family and assume the throne. The Ubus establish a reign of terror before being vanquished and sent into exile in France.
In “Bushwa” the cowardly, dim-witted Y (Randy Harlow) is egged on my his mother, Ma (Carolyn Maroney), to assume the throne of the American Sovereign States (A.S.S.) after the assassination of his father, Poppy (Chas Treadwell.) Y (he has no more name than that simple letter, which I notice comes very close to W in the alphabet) speaks in an amazing combination of obscenity and malapropisms that Morogiello has concocted from Jarry’s original blasphemy and a certain Commander-in-Chief’s weak command of the English language.
The word Bushwa means “bullshit” and is possibly a corruption of the word “bourgeois.” Jarry’s work takes great pleasure in ripping bourgeois conventions to shreds. The first word of “Ubu roi” is “Merdre!” which is variously translated into English as “Shittr!”, “Shikt!”, and “Pschitt!” Morogiello calls a spade a spade and the first word of “Bushwa” is just plain “Shit!”
If you are a staunch Republican, a great fan of the 43rd President, or easily offended “Bushwa” will probably not appeal to you. I personally don’t use a great many four-letter words in my daily speech and writing, nor do I go about bashing the Chief Executive, but for a few hours I was simultaneously entertained and appalled by Morogiello’s words and the Confetti Stage cast’s antics under the direction of Jeremy Ward. I was not appalled by the language or the bathroom humor – this is an Ubu play, after all, and those things are par for the course – I was appalled by the fact that, unlike Jarry’s fantasy tyrant, Morogiello’s Ubu figure is alive and well and living in the White House.
Ward has assembled an oddly uneven cast for “Bushwa.” Harlow is a young actor assaying his first leading role as Y, and a very demanding role it is. Y is onstage almost every minute of the play, and his lines are veritable tongue twisters of confusiosity. While Harlow has a good G.W. impression going, his lack of stage experience shows in his uneven comic timing. Still, this is an impressive first outing for Harlow, and I am sure that subsequent performances will help him hit his stride.
Maroney is a seasoned performer and a commanding stage presence. Ma is very much the power behind the throne as both Poppy and Y are depicted as impotent physically and mentally, and Maroney is capable being quite terrifying.
Treadwell is by far the weakest player on the stage. His limited range and low energy levels are highlighted by both Harlow and Maroney’s energetic performances, and the dazzling virtuosity displayed by the five ensemble players – Nate Beynon, Tia Crawford, Kenneth Degon, Valerie Portanova, and Ovella Snow. Portraying everything from Sodamn Insane, dictator of the Evil Nation of Earwax, to a bunker full of liquor and porn (I am not kidding), these young actors are great fun to watch. Beynon is rubber-faced and versatile. I loved his Assassin, his Young King (who speaks with a distinct Arkansas accent and fools around with beret-wearing interns in the throne room), and his Kenny. Degon did an entertaining turn as Bore, the Young King’s slow-talking heir-apparent. Crawford sang a strong lead vocal on the show’s one musical number, with lyrics by Morogiello and music by Lori Boyd, “War is Just Another Word for Peace.” Snow showed her strong acting chops as the Sultan of Haughty Obabia, and Portanova ululates mellifluously as Sodamn Insane. Crawford rounded out the Persian Gulf contingent as the representative from Tulait (a nation shockingly invaded by oil hungry Sodamn Insane and the army of Earwax.)
I am sure the satire is becoming clear to you now.
The production looks great on a clean and simple set by Rohit Kapoor which showcases the very clever projections designed by Heidi Hoeft-Wolff. I particularly enjoyed the projection sequence and Andy Maroney’s sound design for Y’s Disembraining Machine (first to be disembrained were the press.) Ann Holstein has stayed with Kapoor’s simple style in her costume design, which is minimal and effective. The ensemble players, all clad in basic black, frequently wear bold white signs stating clearly who or what they are playing at the moment.
Not only have I been intrigued for some time by Confetti Stage’s bold and unique choice of scripts for their MainStage Series (not to be confused with their warm and fuzzy Family Series), but I was interested in seeing another, more overtly comic work by Morogiello, whose “Engaging Shaw” thoroughly engaged me last summer at Oldcastle. I was not disappointed. Morogiello is a clever and facile writer, whose ability to entertain is matched by his ability to educate, combining historical accuracy with appealing characters and well-paced plots. In “Bushwa,” which was developed at the 2004 Kennedy Center Page to Stage Festival and premiered at the 2006 Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C., his characters are deliberately less cuddly, but no less entertaining.
As I write this there are only four more performances of “Bushwa” scheduled, so if you are in the mood for a low-down and dirty hunk of humor, scurry on down to the Arts Center of the Capital Region now. Freedom of speech – the freedom to ridicule or applaud our political leaders without fear of persecution – is still one our most cherished rights in this country. We should celebrate it and support it whenever possible.
The Confetti Stage, Inc. production of “Bushwa: A Modern Ubu” runs May 10 and 11 at 8 p.m., May 12 at 2 & 8 p.m., and May 13 at 2 p.m., at the Arts Center of the Capital Region, 265 River Street in Troy, NY. The show runs two-hours and twenty minutes with one intermission. If you have teens who love “South Park” they will probably love this show too, but I wouldn’t bring youngsters under 15 or 16. Tickets are $10. A reception follows the Opening Night performance on May 10. On Sunday, May 13, which is Mother’s Day, Mom gets in for half price $5. Details and on-line ticket purchases are available at http://www.confettistage.com. Reservations are highly recommended.