In the midst of a politically tumultuous election season, Director James Ricks brings a fresh take on two classic pieces of writing to the Firehouse Theatre in a play contrasting two political extremes.
“UBU 84,” a mash-up of the 19th century French play “Ubu Roi” and George Orwell’s 1984, is the product of Joel Bassin, Firehouse’s Producing Artistic Director, and Ricks’ vision to create a production that responds to the idea of corrupted power.
“This country is trying to have a very serious conversation about its future and at the same time there’s this absurdity that has emerged and sort of distracts from that conversation,” Ricks said. “You can’t not be entertained or look away from that distraction. It’s just compelling in it’s own way. I think that’s a reflection of who we are as a society.”
The absurdist comedy “Ubu Roi,” written by Alfred Jarry, tells the story of an over-the-top authoritarian ruler not afraid to act on his every impulse. The original play, which opened and closed on the same night in 1896, elicited a response of shock and disgust from the audience that Bassin and Ricks hope to emulate in a modern way.
“Ubu is an adult-child, but truly an adult child,” said Foster Solomon, who plays the role of Ubu. “So all of his desires are very adult in nature: food appetite, sexual appetite, money appetite, possession appetite, just appetite for everything. He is the embodiment of appetite.”
The ability of an individual to act on his desires and needs is contrasted by the constrained world of Orwell’s 1984, where people live in fear of the Big Brother regime monitoring their every move, told from the perspective of the protagonist Winston. The two pieces are arranged into a larger play by commenting on one another and the harm that can come from both extremes.
“[Winston] lives in this hard, cold world of authoritarian rule, and then disappears into these dreams and fantasies where it’s colorful and grotesque and all of the characters are sort of silly,” Ricks said. “There is sort of a structural kind of metaphoric parallel in that regard that I like. We’re just hoping that the themes and the dichotomy of these two different worlds will sort of resonate in audiences’ minds.”
For the cast and crew, the most challenging part of this production is finding the best way to integrate two completely different works into a one cohesive story line.
“This guy Winston is sort of stuck in the middle of this authoritarian regime where he’s constantly being monitored, he has no real freedoms,” Ricks said. “And then we have “Ubu Roi” and it’s just the complete polar opposite. We have this character Ubu, exploring all of the vices: lust, greed, jealousy, hunger, all that stuff. And he’s able to act on those things because he’s such a selfish, grotesque character.”
“The way that I understand the concept of Post-Modernism, is that it’s a collage of everything that has existed,” Bassin said. “So it’s not deconstructing, in the traditional definition. I think of it as a Post-Modern collage of these two classic texts.”
Bassin hopes that the unusual presentation of the play will leave people with a new outlook on the world around them. For this to best be achieved, he recommends that audiences approach the play with an open mind and to fully immerse themselves in the story.
“Everything that we see makes us see the next thing in a different way,” Bassin said. “Theater—because it’s a structured, designed experience of seeing, and because there’s this empathetic buy-in that happens in the transaction of theater—I think that it changes our perceptions.”
“The shows critique of American society could be viewed as pessimistic or paranoid,” said Charley Raintree, the actor who plays the role of 1984’s Winston. “But it’s very relevant and a thing that people don’t want to look at. People are so strongly connected to their party lines that they are willing to basically swallow anything that their political nominee is going to tell them.”
Ricks and Bassin see the play as a new form of theater that the Richmond community hasn’t seen before: a contemporary adaption of two texts never before combined.
“This isn’t a neat and tidy piece of theater, which I think Richmond is kind of accustomed to,” Ricks said. “It’s different. Hopefully people who are drawn to things that are new and different will come out for that.”
Beneath the absurdist comedy that is the “Ubu” storyline and the stage adaption of the well-known 1984, the directors hope that the play will start a conversation with the audience about the role they want their government to have in their lives.
“Ubu represents, sort of, a wacky, greedy, gluttonous egomaniac, who—by sheer force of determination and the abdication of everyone around him—is able to get control over a country and destroy it,” Bassin said. “It’s sort of the id uncontrolled. What 1984 represents is intellectual tyranny.”
The mission of the play is to get a response out of the audience and get them to have an interactive experience with the story playing out in front of them. According to Raintree, audiences should expect a little bit of everything, including, “sex and violence and betrayal and lies and obscenity… and love and trust. There are some very beautiful moments too, it’s not all dark and gloomy.”