Épaté by Ensemble
Ubu Roi has heart, brains, humor, butt
by Suzi Steffen
|Ma Roi (Chip Sherman) and Pa Roi (Benjamin Newman). Courtesy trial by fire theatreworks
Trial by Fire Theatreworks’ frenetic, uneven, engaging and smart Ubu Roi shows that a group of talented actors who trust each other can do some fine work.
Sometimes, an outside directorial hand might mold and sculpt that work into a superb production, as in the tight, strong Annelie in the Depths of the Night that the UO’s John Schmor directed in May. But Ubu Roi, an ensemble-adapted presentation of the 1896 Alfred Jarry piece — the original produced a riot in Paris after its first word was uttered — presents many riotously funny moments even as some of its strength wavers during the second act.
Benjamin Newman, the driving force behind Trial by Fire and the director and star of this production, plays the titular role (Pa Roi, in this case), a minor, impoverished nobleman who’s pushed to dreams of running the kingdom by his wife, Ma Roi (Chip Sherman). These two actors, who recently completed a run of Kiss of the Spider Woman and whom I first saw on stage together in LCC’s Othello a few years ago, deliberately create a ridiculous, slapstick, physically demanding duet in which mock-epic battles pit Newman’s fake belly against Sherman’s fake breasts and ass, with many World Wrestling Federation-style tumbles, not to mention sexual remarks (and condoms) flying around the stage.
Barbie Wu, another LCC alum, dives into the role of Captain Barbage and willingly participates in the absurd tale. But Newman, Sherman and Wu don’t hog the limelight; comedian and actor Russell Dyball makes a puppet Alfred Jarry one of the highlights of the production, and his alcoholic King Wenceslas and Muppet-voiced Pile aren’t bad either. I don’t want to spend a paragraph listing the actors (that’s what the program is for, people), but Jonathan Nixon (Prince Buggerlas, wink wink) and Emily Hart (Queen Rosamonde, assistant director and so much more) deserve special mention as well. Every member of the ensemble takes physical, emotional and intellectual risks, and one place those risks pay off comes at the end of Act One, when they use –— and abuse — a Queen song.
Tenderness and an acknowledgement of human connection can easily fall off a cliff in productions full of absurdity and post-modern quippiness, but that doesn’t happen here. Yes, the production loses steam in the second act, something that I believe a director not in the acting ensemble could have solved, but it’s a small tedium, relieved by the energy of the good-natured cast.
The word that caused Parisian audiences to riot? “Merdre,” the word for “shit,” sort of, with an extra “r,” drawn out in a not-quite-French manner. The shock of the word doesn’t really translate in 2010 Eugene, with the word “pshite” subsituting for it in this adaptation. No riots may ensue with this production of Ubu Roi, and the bourgeois (including a recognized critic, ahem) get only lightly skewered, but the ensemble makes it well worth $5 and a couple of hours in Upstart Crow Studios.
Ubu Roi doesn’t run this weekend, for some reason, but picks back up June 24-26 and July 1-3. Info at www.trialbyfiretheatre.org or check the group’s Facebook page.