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Adolescence Unleashed 

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Chicago Actors Ensemble


Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

Do not say: "When I was young I used to play"--Play! and be young --a motto, printed on the cover of Let's Sing Pessach Songs, by Adi Sulkin.

"Fuck me fuckface til I faint." --adolescent Portnoy's favorite line of English prose, from Portnoy's Complaint, by Philip Roth.

My boy Max was still up when I got home from the theater the other night. He asked me what I'd seen. "A play called Ubu Roi," I told him. "It had sword fights and clowning and people blowing farts. You would've loved it."

And he would've, too--though, at four and a half, he's just a little young for some parts. People may talk about Ubu Roi's influence on the 20th-century avant-garde; people may go on about how Ubu Roi anticipated Dada, surrealism, and the theater of the absurd. But it's good to remember that--as a program note for the new Chicago Actors Ensemble production says--"This play was written by a 15 year old boy." An awfully smart 15-year-old boy, to be sure--but a 15-year-old boy nonetheless, harboring all the familiar 15-year-old boy's obsessions. Getting off on caca jokes and dirty words, on Punch and Judy violence and nasty caricatures of dumb adults.

Ubu Roi is adolescent infantilism unleashed. A loose, nearly boneless takeoff on Macbeth, it follows the career of the horrendous Pere Ubu as he murders the rightful king of Poland, usurps the crown, wipes out the nobility and the bureaucracy, taxes what's left, and marches off to make war on the czar, trilling his four-letter political philosophy--"Shit!"--the entire time. He poisons people with toilet brushes. He eats shit himself, but doesn't die. He calls his wife rude names. He catechizes cowardice. He kills what he can't swallow. He's pure appetite--pure id--a great big gruesome baby.

And just the kind of vulgar cartoon a bright, slightly backward 15-year-old boy might be expected to draw. There's nothing all that brilliant about the text of Ubu Roi, and little Alfred Jarry was no genius for writing it. (He wasn't the sole author, anyway, but only one of several kids who collaborated in putting together a satirical puppet show attacking a particularly loathsome teacher.)

No, Jarry's genius lay in his refusal to abandon that puppet show and its childish vision as he grew older. He held on to the script, reworked it, and staged the result in 1896, at the age of 23.

And so established himself as the first example (after Candide) of a 20th-century archetype: the self-conscious innocent. A sort of absurd Peter Pan who, having rejected not only conventional notions of maturity but conventional avenues of flight from it, asserts a principled immaturity instead. All the great wild artists of the last 93 years have worked variations on this image. And with the advent of television, it became the dominant mode of being for all of us. Which explains why so many artists are now assuming the "grown-up" role of high-powered entrepreneur. It's the only avant-garde left.

Basically then, the script itself means nothing--or at least nothing you don't already know. It's Jarry's affirmation of his infantile self that means something. And director Rick Helweg's absolutely right in dispensing with the pretense of significance--the usual attempt to make Ubu Roi speak to our time, blah, blah, blah--and giving us a vaudeville with pratfalls, drag turns, knife juggling, puppetry, and--yes--lots of fart noises.

Unfortunately, it can be a fairly slow vaudeville at times. Helweg has framed his production as a lecture in "pataphysics" by Dr. Faustoroll, a philosopher who shows up in another Jarry text. At best, this interpolation offers little more than an in-joke for Jarry aficionados to savor; at worst, it's a silly, useless, and unfunny digression from the much funnier silly uselessness of Ubu himself.

Though winningly game, Timm Reinhard's Dr. Faustoroll can't hold a green candle to Mark Nelson's lyrically repulsive Pere Ubu. Nelson plays Ubu as nothing more than a regular guy with a bizarre hairstyle and the morals of a slug. A cross between Ralph Kramden and Benito Mussolini. He's so much fun to watch that there's a palpable letdown when he's offstage.

Still, Eric Ronis makes a fine, vampy Mere Ubu; and the twins, Craig and Spike Sjogren, do some startling physical work--though Craig's French accent is more trouble than it's worth for everyone involved. Millicent Hurley's also rather startling as a queen on roller skates. Shawn Durr's Butthead is very nice.

Speaking of kids' shows, the Mary-Arrchie Theatre's got one, sensibly titled The Mary-Arrchie Kid's Show. This is a big departure for them. Up to now, the closest they've come to children's theater was bringing a live lamb onstage during Sam Shepard's The Curse of the Starving Class.

There are times, unfortunately, when they let you know just how big a departure it is--mugging self-consciously, projecting a forced whimsy, as if to say, "Can you believe we're actually doing this?"

But their discomfort also works to their advantage, giving them a creative distance from the three fairy tales that make up their program, and allowing them a sense of irony you don't usually find in kids' shows--which leads, paradoxically, to a freer sense of play than you usually find in kids' shows. The narrator says a character built a fire, and a cardboard fire comes sailing out of the wings. A woman goes to pour cold water on her husband, and out of the bucket falls a mix of clear plastic six-pack holders and green paper fish. Flags depicting cats and dogs manage at once to promote and deflect a sense of menace, while the theoretically ridiculous notion of using a turtle as a hat on an actress's head turns out in fact to be both efficient and rather exquisite.

The show is directed by Richard Cotovsky, designed by Gina Vera McLaughlin, and choreographed by Valerie Olney, all three of whom worked with the late great Igloo, the Theatrical Group. You can see and feel the Igloo influence--a little more focused, perhaps, but by no means dulled--in this sweet, sure production. My boy Max was there and had a fine time. So did I.


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