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A CurtainUp Review
Ubu Roi

Shitke!— opening expletive of Cheek by Jowl's Ubu Roi

ubu roi
A scene from Ubu Roi
Alfred Jarry's play Ubu Roi (translated "King Turd") sparked a riot in 1896 when it premiered, and had only two performances. A century later, it might not create such a public stir, but shocking it is.

Cheek by Jowl's new staging of the absurdist play, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival is directed by Declan Donnellan and designed by Nick Ormerod, who are the company's joint artistic directors. These two artists combine their superb talents here and deliver one unforgettable production.

It is performed in French, with English subtitles, with no intermission. And what you get here is an undiluted dose of Jarry's drama of grotesques, complete with all its obscenities and vulgarities in the dialogue. The first word spewed out in the play is "Shitke!"(Jarry's original text has "Merdre!," translated "Shit!"). The rough language keeps surfacing at every twist and turn of the plot.

Now considered a landmark play, Ubu Roi actually began as a schoolboy prank. Jarry, at 15, mischievously penned a puppet play that poked fun at one of his stuffy instructors at the lycee in Rennes. The instructor's name was Hebert, dubbed Pere Hebe by his students, and later Ubu. In 1888, Jarry staged his puppet work for his friends, who delighted in its irreverence and cunning. Nearly a decade later, at its official opening, the luminaries Arthur Symons, Jules Renard, W.B Yeats, and Mallarme would be in the audience, each realizing that they were witnessing a Happening and turning point in theater.

The Festival version retains the original myth, with some poetic license taken by Donnellan. I won't go on at length about the plot, but it borrows much from Shakespeare's tragedies, with garnishes of the great Falstaff.

Set in Poland, the principal characters are Pere Ubu, Captain of the Dragoons and right-hand man to King Wenceslas, and his wife Mere Ubu, As the play opens, Mere Ubu persuades her husband to off the king and seize the throne. Her urgings ignite his royal ambitions, and he immediately hatches a plan. Ubu will ask Captain Bordure to join him in an assassination plot, and bait Bordure with a quick promotion to Duke of Lithuania. Of course, the King's son Bougrelas and his mother Queen Rosemonde have had their suspicions about Ubu and warn the King not to trust his closest advisor. The King pooh-poohs their fears and naively goes unarmed to meet Ubu and his crew. The murder occurs, and it's the first of many power grabs and poisonous events in this play.

The actors nail down their respective characters, and marvelously reveal them in their alternating rational and irrational moments. What is astonishing about the troupe is their versatility on stage. The performers not only act and dance but contort themselves into bizarre positions in this wild and wooly play.

Donnellan clearly succeeds here by trusting in the play's mythic force and archetypal imagery. He executes a series of scenes where the personage Ubu becomes a kind of Jekyl in one scene, and Hyde the next. It is a bone-chilling spectacle but highly effective in reminding one that potential violence lurks beneath the civilized façade of human beings.

Donnellan also makes the classic very accessible. I found myself laughing one moment and gasping the next at theses caricatures of high society. Pere Ubu, like Shakespeare's Macbeth, is mesmerizing to watch, largely because he acts out his infantile appetite to be topdog before our eyes. And one gets to see how it all tragically plays out.

Ormerod's cream-colored set looks like it belongs on the cover of Architectural Digest. He has whipped up a dream of a spacious contemporary home, with elegant furniture and a chic dining room. It is meticulously clean at the play's beginning but looks like a disaster area at the play's end.

. The only drawback to this production is that Ubu Roi is being performed only five times at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater. This is a dream production. Hope you were lucky enough to obtain a ticket.

Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry
Directed by Declan Donnellan
Cast: Xavier Boiffier (Bordure), Camille Cayol (Mere Ubu), Vincent de Bouard (King Wenceslas), Christophe Grégoire (Pere Ubu), Cécile Leterme (Queen Rosemonde), and Sylvain Levitte (Bougrelas)

Sets: Nick Ormerod
Lighting: Pascal Noel
Video Designers: Benoit Simon, Quentin Vigier
Composer: Davy Sladek, with additional music by Paddy Cunneen
At Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College (524 West 59th Street). Ticket Price: $45-$85.
From 7/22/15 to 7/26/15
Performed in French, with English supertitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes, with no intermission Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 7/22/15.
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