nytheatre.com review by Maggie Cino
February 25, 2005
This is the word that broke theatre open, ripped apart society, and let loose insanity, surrealism, immediacy.
At least, if we take Elizabeth Swados’s word for it.
JABU is a mishmash of surrealist icons, theatrical and literary history, labored modern-day political references, and a lot of good old-fashioned American musical pluck and vigor. (There's even a parody of a Broadway medley.) It is a nostalgic history of a world that was never so simple, where a single word caused a revolution in theatre and thought, and where Alfred Jarry—an insane, pretentious, drug addled midget—is a tender romantic hero.
Jarry lived from 1873 to 1907 and wrote his most renowned work at the age of fifteen. Ubu Roi is still studied in colleges, and performed by experimental and classical companies alike. Elizabeth Swados, with a keen eye for visual and narrative storytelling, has taken the story of Jarry’s short, crude life and interspersed it with scenes from his masterwork. At crucial moments the stories intersect: when Jarry is drafted, Pa Ubu starts a war, while at the very end we see Ma and Pa Ubu tending the dying Jarry as if they were the parents he lost.
The play is narrated by the character of Madame de Rachide. A married lady known for her literary salon, she develops a personal and sexual infatuation with Jarry. Danielle Levanas is conscientious and beautiful, but struggles with Madame de Rachide’s raw perversity. Matt Wilson adeptly evokes Jarry’s eccentricities, but he is still a handsome guy, far from the midget monster the play describes.
And that is ultimately the problem. There is nothing gross or dangerous about this production, despite the toilet used as a dais. We are told of horrors we never see. One character tells us “self-destruction is messy” but that’s a concept, at best. One of the grossest, most surreal moments is when puppets of Jarry’s diseased organs talk to us, and I couldn’t help wishing for more moments like it.
Swados is not afraid to tackle dense ideas and the production is expertly executed. It has catchy music, strong voices, a talented cast, and intriguing visuals. But it also has the cliche of the artist as a mad genius who relies on drugs to get through the day and who has only one piece of good work in him. Swados feeds us the formulaic dream of living fast and dying young, perhaps knowing that although Jarry himself is dead, the reality he lived and wrote is no easier to bear.