Ubu in Chains

Ubu in Chains
presented by Medicine Show
directed and translated by Barbara Vann
with Oliver Conant and Lynda Rodolitz

In 1888 a French schoolboy, Alfred Jarry, wrote a puppet play to lampoon his physics teacher and created the character Pere Ubu. He would later rework the script into the play Ubu Roi. It’s one of the seminal plays of modern drama. Jarry wrote three more plays around the character Pere Ubu. The plays broke the conventions of drama and prepared the way for the absurdists to come decades later. The third play was Ubu in Chains. Like Ubu Roi, it’s a preposterous, iconoclastic, very funny play. 

Pere Ubu is an astonishing, stupid character, the id without the super-ego. His partner, Mere Ubu, is the same. In Ubu in Chains Pere Ubu decides to become a slave – along with Mere Ubu, of course. “I shall serve mercilessly” he says. And “Long live slavery!” Logic and natural impulse are inverted in the Ubu world. Soldiers drill for indiscipline and disobedience. When charged with a crime, Ubu wants to be convicted, and he’s at home in jail.

Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble has just presented a splendid production of Ubu in Chains. Its tone has the simpleton articulateness of the comic strip. Director Barbara Vann translates the uniquely bizarre quality of the script into on-stage terms and gives it all the absurdity it demands. She’s always in control of the farce. The play is a series of comic bits, and she gives them all a comic exactitude. She keeps the production allegro; her characters are always in a frenzy. Her stage mechanics are precise. She blocks her four wacky soldiers to look like a whole regimen of dotty military and she stages a couple of terrific fights, one on three legs. However, her interpretation does not explicate the simple plot.

Oliver Conant is terrific as Pere Ubu, puffing out his cheeks and acting the total buffoon. He gives us a model of delicious comic acting. He never flags, constantly churning out the energy the role demands. There’s the occasional technical glitch when he swallows his words and nearly whispers, but for the vast bulk of the time it’s delightful how he splats himself on the stage with the requisite unsubtlety. He’s tremendously goofy.

As Mere Ubu, Lynda Rodolitz is costumed and made up to look an absolute harridan. She’s fine physically, a cartoon character from head to foot. But her voice isn’t up to the demands of matching Pere Ubu.

The cast creates great ensemble work, culminating in a battle with ping pong balls. They’re as much puppets as the schoolboy Jarry’s marionettes. Their work is rigorous and well defined in every particular.
Kudos to Medicine show for choosing this script and producing it so well. We’ll be looking forward to seeing what the company offers next.

Steve Capra
June 2015

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