by Gail M. Burns, July 2003
“[Ubu is] the most extraordinary thing seen in the theatre for a long time.” – André Gide
Its Free Theatre time again! This year’s offering, Ubu The King by Alfred Jarry, opens on July 31 and plays nightly at 6 pm through August 9 on Buxton Field, (except for Monday, August 6, when there is no performance).
Anyone who has take Theatre 101 will immediately question the selection of Jarry’s Ubu as family entertainment. His play Ubu Roi (King Ubu) caused a riot when it was first performed in Paris in 1896, and it remains notorious to this day.
But according to this year’s WTF Free Theatre director Evan Cabnet, this Ubu The King is not based on Ubu Roi but on a lesser-known fourth play in the Ubu Cycle, Ubu Sur La Butte (Ubu on the Hill) which Jarry created to be performed by puppets in 1901. This incarnation had a much longer run – 64 performances compared to 2 for the original Ubu – and young artists and writers such as Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire attended and were inspired by the work.
“I first read Ubu ten years ago in a standard history of western theatre class and I was just floored by it,” said Cabnet, “It is so sloppy and so messy and so fun and has so much potential. I was dazzled that this was part of the legitimate theatre canon because it goes against everything that is legitimate.”
Cabnet and his large cast of non-equity actors have created an Ubu that is an exciting, action packed, fast-paced farce. “This is more of a Punch & Judy version of Ubu,” Cabnet explained, “But it was important to me not to take Jarry’s work and syrup it up. I have retained as much of Jarry’s language and plot as I could within reason and good taste. I wanted to capture the inherent foolishness and messiness, the clowning aspect to the play, while keeping and all the ideas he was exploring about greed and the abuse of power.”
Cabnet promises that his Ubu will offer something for fans of every genre from Shakespeare to the Marx Brothers, along with some Busby Berkley style dance numbers, and a Battlefield scene staged to Michael Jackson’s Beat It. He is able to use a larger playing space thanks to the new 6 p.m. curtain time this year, “The show runs about an hour and fifteen minutes, so we will be performing all in daylight. There are no stage lights so we can open up the scope of the action.”
In Cabnet’s version, Ma and Pa Ubu plot to overthrow Good King Wenceslas to become the King and Queen of Baloney. When the Ubus get greedy, the natives get restless, and the young prince Billikens, true heir to the throne, must come to the rescue. Can Ma and Pa Ubu escape justice and save their skins?
Jarry’s Père Ubu was inspired by an unpopular teacher at his school. And as Cabnet notes, much of the rude schoolboy humor that fed Jarry’s imagination has tremendous influence on both high art and popular entertainment today.
“The traditions of theatrical anarchy that Jarry started are very well preserved in our modern culture. Whoever writes Homer Simpson’s dialogue and whoever wrote Duck Soup for the Marx Brothers had to been aware of Ubu,” Cabnet said, “Even though this play is over 100 years old it is still very contemporary.”
Cabnet is this year’s recipient of the Boris Sagal Fellowship, which is awarded annually to an emerging director making the transition to a professional career. He has spent four seasons at WTF, most recently as the 2002 Bill Foeller Fellow. In addition to WTF, he has worked at New York City Opera, Playwrights Horizons, SoHo Rep, and the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, where he is an artist in residence.
Buxton Field is located at the junction of South Street and Gale Road, just south of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. ADMISSION IS FREE, and no reservations are necessary. Parking is available at Clark. Patrons are encouraged to bring picnics and blankets or chairs. For more information or directions, please call the Festival’s 24-hour Information Line at (413) 597-3399 or visit their Web site. The Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Free Theatre is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003