Firehouse Theatre’s ‘UBU 84′ challenges audiences, enlarges brains
Overheard at intermission standing on line at the Firehouse Theatre men’s room: “Damn! I don’t know what the hell that was but it’s scaring the crap out of me.”
What that was, and continued throughout the night to be, was the insane phantasmagorical roller coaster of a nightmare that the producers decided to call Ubu 84.
James Ricks carefully helms the evening that blends the stark horrific dystopia of George Orwell’s “Science Fiction” novel 1984 with the raving mad lunacy of French Playwright Alfred Jarry’s scandalous Arbdurdist play Ubu Roi.
Orwell’s 1984 poses a world where the government has taken control of life itself. “Big Brother is watching you” is no mere homily, it is this world’s reality. Bleak and barren of emotion, orderly glorification of the State is the number one industry.
Assigned to a job changing recorded history to suit the current popular position, mild rebel George Winston (Charley Raintree) challenges the system by taking a lover and discovering the underground Rebellion. He is cruelly tortured for his efforts. Electroshock therapy is administered by the blandly savage, officious Party henchman O’Brien (Christopher Dunn) which sends Winston into fantastic feverish nightmares of a world where the lunatics have literally taken over the asylum.
Enter Ma and Pa Ubu. (top image)
That King Ubu is the nightmarish incarnation of Big Brother is the hook that melds these texts into a singular horrific message. Ricks successfully channels his inner Brecht and Monty Python to get there.
The Brechtian goal is that Theatre had to be adapted to social needs arising from political circumstances, with entertainment no longer being its primary focus.
The absurdist viewpoint of Python (and Jarry) is that reality is most easily explained at its outrageous edges.
By combining the color drained world of 1984 with the color saturated carnival atmosphere of Ubu, Ricks finds dual despotic regimes that offer the same soulless outcomes.
Ricks and crew provide several bridges to ease the transition.
First, he provides an Ensemble of actors (Jamar Jones, Jimmy Mello, Bartley Mullin and Connor Haggerty) that serve as a Greek Chorus and the connective tissue between the two worlds. This device provides recognition of the similarity of experience between the two plots.
Next, he and designer Tennessee Dixon create a visual experience through video that serves to further bloodline between worlds. She lets the screens live in the world of the play as a character and force unto itself.
In the 1984 sections, the screens multitask beautifully but most powerfully when they serve as the intrusive element of the government. Spied upon at work, at home, in the jail cell, one screen is always live and positioned at an angle that seemed the most abusive (from the side, from the back). The fact that the camera couldn’t be detected made the experience all that more threatening.
In the Ubu sections, the camera served as commentary of the wars fought and cruelties to citizens inflicted.
The quintessential crossover moment may have been when Kimberly Jones Clark as Ma Ubu channels Big Brother’s radio message using her nipples as frequency dials. Absolutely funny and, more importantly, the type of element that cemented the two worlds.
Part of the mission for exploratory theatre is to educate the public who are too easily self-entertained with computer screens and whose attention spans have been truncated by the 15 second youtube video.
The opening night audience reacted as you would expect a herd to do. They loved the comedy and fidgeted through the drama.
And yet the audience was forced in a way to think about what they were seeing – and in a small way, their brain functions were enlarged.
Ricks has assembled a very talented cast and crew.
Foster Solomon and Jones Clark have never been better as Ma and Pa Ubu. Hysterically larger than life, yet somehow familiar.
Raintree creates a starkly noble figure as Winston. Somewhat void of personality, we are all the more shocked by the cruel torture inflicted on him as Raintree writhes and screams in spasms of pain before us.
Dunn was menacingly effective as the torturer O’Brien, but as a Polish General in Ubu, he was devastatingly funny.
The Ensemble, as mentioned, became the filter through which both plays melded. Of special delight were the comic stylings of Mello throughout and the heartfelt emotion of Haggerty as Winston’s love interest in 1984.
Dixon’s set was simple and dutifully bland, well suited for 1984 and embellished with add-ons for Ubu. The set pieces all functional and well used. Her media images were very effective and used to great effect by Mr. Ricks.
Bill Miller’s lighting scheme matched the duality of the disparate worlds and kept the mood in balance throughout.
Cora Delbridge’s costumes for Ubu rocked the house. Colorful and absurd in both style and fit, they added immeasurable authenticity to that world gone wild. Of special delight were the beards of the three scientists worn by the Ensemble. One of mop strands, one of newspaper clippings and one of cotton sheets. Creative and bizarrely just right. Her designs for 1984 pale but correct in service to that world.
Mr. Ricks joined Ryan Gallagher to provide a wide array of sound effects and music that complimented and never distracted from the play.
I love uncomplicated theatre. Broadway musicals and Neil Simon are my passion. I don’t think either one of those genres are easy but they are not intellectually challenging. The larger companies with bigger houses to fill and dinner theatres do those, sometimes very well.
Ubu 84 does what theatre was meant to do: challenge and experiment with the forms of theatrical communication itself.
That kind of theatre gives me chills and Firehouse Theatre and Ricks gave me some Big Chills.
Highly original but under-produced political musical drama focusing on the hardships of an African American entertainer at the turn of the Twentieth Century.January 16, 2017
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