By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
There’s something telling in how all those political plays that suddenly swept across America (and England, of course, which is really just our 51st state pretending to be its own country) after the most recent invasion of Iraq were mostly literal stuff. In New York, Tony Kushner’s anthro-political excursion Homebody, Kabulled the pack, being the first out of the gate, even if it was actually written before the (second) invasion. On our coast, we also got Brit David Hare’s plucked-from-the-newspapers Stuff Happensat the Taper, a straight-on, straight-in account of events leading up to the invasion;Tim Robbins’ Embeddedat Actors’ Gang gave us some soldiers’ points of view; the Fountain Theater weighed in with a docudrama of voices in What I Heard About Iraq,Simon Levy’s adaptation of Eliot Weinberger’s article; and Iraqi-American Heather Raffo strutted across the stage of the Wadsworth Theater in her one-woman show Nine Parts of Desire, which took us into and around war-ravaged Baghdad.
The plays were aimed at stoking the indignation of people who enjoy yelling back at the TV news — people who already felt that, overseas, we were an instrument not of liberation but of oppression and incompetence. Meanwhile, the very existence of these plays on our stages, their prevalence, and their graphic nature in both content and style speak to what a comparatively open society we have. Had we not, these candid plays would have been raided and the players “disappeared.” It’s for this reason that, under communism, the Poles and the Russians found secret codes of abstraction in their theater through which to comment on persecution in their societies and in the world. And after World War II, though there were Watches on the Rhine and Diaries of Anne Frank, the most penetrating reactions in the theater to the lunacies of war (and of life) came from plays that made not a single reference to Hitler or Auschwitz or the atomic bomb. Waiting for Godotwas about none of that, and all of it. Ionesco’s Rhinoceroswaspatently about the Nazis with nary a German strudel or swastika in sight. As a culture, we don’t do abstraction well, probably because we’ve never had to. Which is why most of our current political plays will be short-lived — sizzling, then vanishing like newspaper clippings on a bonfire.
This is among the reasons that seeing A Noise Within’s production of Ubu Roi — an 1896 political vaudeville by Frenchman Alfred Jarry — has the refreshing, curative qualities of sitting in a hot bath and seeing the truth unfold in a song-and-dance of timelessly grotesque and sickening merriment. It’s hard to laugh, but you have to smile.
Ubuscandalized French society with its opening line, “Merde”(shit) —the first time an obscenity had been used in modern European theater. The play then proceeds to parody Macbeth, to chronicle the power grab by a gorging pig of a military officer, Pa Ubu (Alan Blumenfeld), a bully and a coward who’s almost too fat to get into his breastplate, and his equally disgusting wife, Ma Ubu (Deborah Strang). They open this production sitting on toilets and farting while verbally abusing each other and complaining about their lot in life. (Ubu wipes his rear before stuffing the soiled paper into his breast pocket for safekeeping.) Carrying out their assassination plot, they pummel the King of Poland (Mitchell Edmonds) — after the sap has just given Ubu a promotion — and then grab the throne and slaughter all the nobles, intellectuals and anybody who complains. All the while, the Ubus plunder the country’s already precarious finances for almost no reason at all. Sound familiar?
Blumenfeld and Strang are on the mark as Pa and Ma. Bloated by padding, they swim across the stage without missing a beat of their vicious repartee. The usurped Polish aristocracy is a curly locked, bucktoothed clan in lederhosen (wigs by Charlotte Purefoy and costumes by Leon Wiebers). The Polish army, splendidly choreographed by director Julia Rodriquez Elliot, arrives in formation like Uma Thurman robots, marching while playing kazoos, each with an air filter for a collar. Jill Hill’s gorgeous Queen Rosamund, with a massive lace-heart collar, keels over almost mid-sentence in her dying soliloquy. The revenge of Shaun Taylor Corbett’s pretender to the throne has a quite marvelous vivacity, though he hasn’t a singing voice to match, which could partly explain why the musical theater and movie parodies that accompany his mock romantic and battle scenes fray at the edges.
Still, without a single reference to Bush, we see our country entirely refracted through some imaginary, infantile playpen. Ubu actually delights in raising taxes, which is the opposite of Bush’s policy. Were there some masks or puppets of Condie Rice or Rumsfeld, such contradictions would stand out. But here, it’s the general comedic wash of madness and brutality that captures the shapes of hubris, the underlying venality of people who love power for power’s sake, and how the rest of us suffer under their weight.
“I’m gonna kill everyone, then go away,” Ubu declares as his national policy. “Sing!” he bellows at the audience during the bouncy chorus in one of accompanist/composer David O’s ditties: “I don’t care if you are subscribers, sing!”
Over at the Pasadena Playhouse, playwright Alison Carey spins As You Like Iton a stick (what Jarry did to Macbeth),though she goes about it in exactly the opposite way, amplifying the familiar and the literal by setting the play in and around Pasadena (the ex-mayor — Gerald Hiken — gets exiled to the Mojave Desert), turning the Rose Bowl into a NASCAR racetrack and peppering the soufflé with jokes about Bush, gay marriage and any number of current concerns that fit into the play’s mélange of gender-bending and double identities. (Carey’s subtitle is A California Concoction.) However, none of this feels like a too-heavy necklace, for several reasons: Carey’s contemporary goofs in iambic pentameter being the first, and then there’s the sheer force of her wit. There’s also the conspicuously schematic structure of Shakespeare’s comedy, which is itself a joke about divine order in a chaotic world, into which Carey’s topical references come off as little winks.
Peter Howard’s leather-jacketed and dark-shaded Jacques (his “All the world’s a stage” becomes “All the world’s a show”) is a cast-out television producer fighting bouts of depression. (He has an aria on the various types of depression that’s among the play’s highlights.) It all settles into a kind of treatise on the cosmic power of love in all its permutations, which is where Carey reunites with Shakespeare.
Kate Mulligan attacks her many-gendered multiple roles (including a truth-bearing alien) with an infectious glee, and Christopher Liam Moore’s Rosalind (who goes in disguise as a man) is one of those memorable performances where androgyny becomes a character unto itself. His Rosalind carries herself with a poise that melts into a subtly effeminate “lover boy” when he/she dons a cowboy getup in the desert.
This is director Bill Rauch’s parting production with Cornerstone Theater Company, and it bears the robust stamp of his personality, and of that into which Cornerstone has evolved under his decades-long watch — intellectually precocious and perhaps more openhearted than open-minded. There’s jab after jab at Republicans, but not a single swing at the Republicans-lite Democrats, whose convictions are determined by poll ratings and convenience, and who helped set the stage for the mess we’re in.
The topicality of As You Like It only reinforces the beauty of Ubu, with its relentless savaging not of people but of the qualities that bring us all down. The Republican Party doesn’t have a patent on those qualities, even if it does hold all the political cards for the moment.?
UBU THE KING | By ALFRED JARRY | Presented by A NOISE WITHIN, 134 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale | Through May 7 | (818) 240-0910, Ext. 10
AS YOU LIKE IT: A California Concoction | By ALISON CAREY | Presented by CORNERSTONE THEATER COMPANY and the PASADENA PLAYHOUSE, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena | Through April 16 | (626) 356-7529