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Long Live the King of Crank Comedy
"The Moscow Times" ,
You've gotta love Alfred Jarry. Or, at least, what is left of him, which, primarily, is a wonderfully bizarre play called "Ubu Roi," or "Ubu the King," a rare and delightfully entertaining Russian production of which is playing at the Et Cetera Theater. Jarry was a guy who made mincemeat of all those stuffy, do-gooding notions people have of art. When he wrote his first play at 15, he did it to take revenge on a nasty teacher he hated. The play was uncouth, unfair and uninhibited. But when a reworking of it came to the attention of bohemian Paris in 1896, Jarry's piece of semi-juvenile delinquency was reborn as a cultural phenomenon. One could argue that "Ubu Roi" was one of the most influential plays in the last century. It anticipated the surrealist and dada movements, attracted the admiration of Pablo Picasso and Toulouse Lautrec, and fed such developments as the theater of cruelty and theater of the absurd. No matter that Jarry became a parody of his own creation and died of drink at age 34 in 1907. His King Ubu was already immortal. The lesson of all this is not to plunder art for lessons but rather for art alone. Which is just what the Bulgarian director Alexander Morfov did in his fast-paced production starring Alexander Kalyagin as Ubu. It is a celebration of theater as a living art that engages us in ways that have nothing to do with intellect or morals. Fueled by the manic music of the Tiger Lillies, this show is a cauldron of screwball physical comedy, puerile lavatory jokes and obscene neologisms, all served up in such good faith we couldn't care less that some of it may not be in good taste. Everything, and I mean everything, is turned into a joke. Hangings become acrobatic dance scenes and an author's literary confession ends in a mugging. I found all of it, no matter how silly -- even the guy whose crotch kept squeaking every time he grabbed it -- to be very funny. Ubu in Kalyagin's outlandish interpretation is literally a wide-eyed innocent. With thick black, raccoon-like rings drawn around his eyes, Kalyagin looks like a man in a constant state of amazement. He is all instinct and avarice, and has a mind quick enough to act without hesitation. No deed is too dirty for him, no suffering too cruel to ignore as long as it is not his own. The plot of this play was originally devised for a puppet show. The vulgar Papa Ubu gets it into his head to kill the king of Poland and take his place. He is supported by his wife Mama Ubu (Olga Belova) and a retinue of other idiots and thugs. In a snowballing comedy of errors and nonsense, they assassinate the king, drain the country of its money and attack Russia in search of more. Understandably, King Ubu has often been held up as a symbol of the evil of banality. But it is to Morfov's credit that his production does not set us thinking too hard about political correlations. He avoided that bundle of banalities by showcasing the power of theater to surprise. Morfov's main ally in this is Kalyagin, who seems to have drawn more than a little on Charlie Chaplin's mix of physical agility and total naivete. I was slayed by one scene of a stand-up microphone falling apart piece by piece in Ubu's hands. It has to be one of the oldest tricks in the book -- a klutz trashes a mechanical object -- but Kalyagin did it to perfection. Chaplin, or at least the genre of silent film that he helped create, plays a significant role in the show. Not only do the actors imitate those familiar blank stares and comically hurried gestures, but Morfov included several silent, black-and-white film scenes where live actors interact with figures on a screen. Designer Emil Kapelyush provided an ideal set mixing utter simplicity with a few eccentric details, such as the enormous, skeletal "Trojan Horse" in the belly of which Ubu attacks Russia. A few angled layers of curtains create spatial backdrops while two strange wooden turrets serve as hills and palace towers that "burn" when plastic fanned from below is back-lit in red. "Ubu Roi" may have started out 106 years ago as an infantile prank, but it is still a kick in the pants.