King Ubu: Shakespeare, karaoke and absurdity

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While waiting outside for the theatre doors to open, an audience member described King Ubu as “Shakespeare on acid.” The performance delivered on this bizarre promise by bringing to life an absurd commentary on foolishness, politics and power as relevant today as ever.

Directed by David Fancy, who adapted the script from a translation by David Edney, King Ubu is an insightful send-up of widespread cultural gaslighting in a post-truth time. Alfred Jarry’s depiction of a ridiculous dictator with no bite to back up his bark is as infuriating as it is important and as beautiful as it is fun.

Jasmine Case, who played the messenger, councillor and captain, embodied this balance between serious and hysterical flawlessly.  She performed monologues plucked from the pages of Shakespeare with conversational ease and commanded the room’s attention just as effectively when prompting the others on stage to begin a Fortnite dance session.

In terms of commanding presence, it would be impossible to overlook the dynamic leads of Emma McCormick and Tsipporah Shendroff as Pa and Ma Ubu respectively. Shendroff’s biting sarcasm and flouncing flirtation was the perfect foil to McCormick as the cowardly tyrant himself.

McCormick’s characterization of Pa was thorough, from the slightest movement to the very voice she gave him, which swung from the highest to lowest pitches with ease. Her performance felt like an ongoing wink to the audience, an inside joke that we were in on, without losing any realism. She brought her emotional range as an actress to a character that struggled to articulate even simple emotions. As such, Pa, despite being a toilet-brush-wielding killer and money-obsessed tyrant, was lamentable and even lovable.

Shendroff matched McCormick’s energy as Pa’s manipulative wife with eyes for everyone but him. From the very beginning, when we could only hear Ma and Pa arguing, it was clear that Shendroff was at home on stage. Her voice calling out, “Pa Ubu,” with such disdain has haunted my dreams and I am not complaining. She brought to life a robust character, all while navigating a massive hoop skirt.

Alongside hilarious moments like Ma quoting Smash Mouth’s “All Star” and Pa forcing the nobles into a giant puppet head with glowing eyes were heartfelt, powerful moments that exemplified the impressive range of the cast.

As Jackson Wagner’s Buggerlas knelt next to his dying mother, his performance tugged at heartstrings. When Rachel Frederick’s Stanislas Leczinski watched her beloved collapse from a stab wound, she let out a truly heart-wrenching scream, a small detail in the grander scheme of things but so well-executed that it genuinely made me tear up.

There was no true standout performance as the entire cast put on a masterful show. Juan-Carlos Figueroa was a charming Captain Bordure — and don’t even get me started on his rendition of “You Raise Me Up.” Leah Eichler’s Fess had an irresistible, bloodthirsty energy. Also fierce was Avery Delaney, who portrayed a noble, magistrate, councillor, financier, peasant, Janiel and a puppeteer. Lauren Reid brought sweetness to the stage as Queen Rosamunda, returning after her death as a nobleperson, magistrate and financier. Ash McEachern and Chris Murillo were the perfect team as Boleslas and Ladislas, bringing their skill and charm to roles as courtiers and Polish citizens, with McEachern also appearing as the bailiff and Murillo as John Sobieski and Michael Federovitch. Samuel Donovan shone as Dexter, even showcasing his impressive singing skills, however briefly.

Taylor Bogaert took on a startling 11 different roles in the two-hour performance, oftentimes on stilts. Highlights of hers include a monologue as a slaughtered bear, noting how little she cared for Pa, as it was her own happiness that mattered to her — a happiness dwindling as the salmon she ate contained microplastics and climate change interfered with her hibernation patterns. The monologue fit beautifully into Fancy’s modern adaptation of King Ubu, drawing attention to the silliness of human strife in the face of greater issues, like deforestation and pollution.

The production’s beauty was in more than just acting, with lighting and sound playing a huge role in its impact. The image of Bordure on his knees, the light and shadows falling like prison bars across his face, as he spoke to the Emperor was lasting.

There is particular power in this play as largely student-run. As young people, the future of our environment and politics is in our hands. Do we have the agency of the characters taken on by the cast, or of the puppets so well-created by Clelia Scala? Many of us are rightfully horrified by the baffling and oftentimes completely illogical acts of Ubu-like politicians. Is it possible for us to stand against them? Or will it do as much as Buggerlas’s revenge mission? What could convince the masses who stand behind dictators with no apparent power beyond that awarded to them by their base to turn against their tyrant?

Apparently, nothing. In the end, Ubu and his followers leave behind the utter anarchy he created in the fictionalized version of Poland to move to France with no real consequences. Nobody talks about the unnecessary deaths or the sheer chaos in his wake. For those of us who crave justice, it’s a disappointing ending, but the ending we need to see, particularly as we allow buffoons to cause serious, lethal damage on the world stage and go on to live happy lives utterly free of any semblance of justice for their wrongs.

In the bleak face of the apparent meaninglessness of justice, rebellion and fighting for what’s right, at least we will always have Abba’s “Dancing Queen.”

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