Ugo's Last Dance
nytheatre.com review by Nancy Kim
September 12, 2008
As the days get cooler and nights slip quicker, Ugo's Last Dance, a moody and macabre clown musical, is just about the perfect diversion to let go of our hazy summer trifles. Taking inspiration from the 33rd canto of Dante's Inferno in The Divine Comedy, playwright and composer David Lefort Nugent and director Alec Tok partner wonderfully in realizing a theatrically haunting and darkly comic tale.
Thrown into a one-room prison, the treasonous clown Ugo (Pun Bandhu) appears mostly harmless and just barely perturbed. His only company in the cell is a long forgotten skeleton of a past occupant. With the first of many knowing glances to the audience, Ugo fashions different ways of using the skeleton to climb up to the high window, and when he does succeed, he gets stuck trying to squeeze through the window, leaving his bottom half dangling.
While he is hanging from this position, another clown, Gaddo (Matt Hussong), is thrown into the same prison for similarly ambiguous reasons. Lo and behold, the two clowns discover they are former partners. Amusingly, Ugo spends half of the first act stuck in the window, giving Bandhu the opportunity to be as expressive as he can with his bottom half. Meanwhile, Hussong is a more peevish and truculent clown as Gaddo.
In the ensuing time spent together in the jail cell, Ugo and Gaddo are tortured and starved by the guards acting on behalf of Archbishop Ruggieri, a power-hungry and autocratic figure, punishing the clowns for their outspoken political commentary and heresy. When Gaddo's own child is thrown into the prison with the clowns to await their deaths, an absurd sort of love triangle is revealed but ends in a horrific sacrifice—a nod to the tale of Ugolino dell Gheradesca from Canto 33 of Dante's Inferno whereby the imprisoned family of Ugolino and his male offspring are locked in a tower to die and the children offer up their bodies to keep their father alive.
Utilizing some effective Brechtian techniques, the show offers up low-tech sound effects—such as pouring water out of a bottle all the times Gaddo relieves himself—performed in plain sight by other cast members, as well as Nugent's songs (accompanied by a trio of musicians, Chris Moore, Tom Gavin and the playwright himself, making up the band The Fairground Booth), including a climactic and well-performed song by Hussong that unsubtly reminds the audience that it's the "11 o'clock number." Themes of religion, faith, illicit desires, and intolerance for political dissent are also explored, giving Tok opportunities to create memorable tableaus and disturbing dream sequences.
Eliza Bent, Regi Huc, Tom Everett Russell, and Kiat-Sing Teo (Teo, especially, mesmerizes and intrigues as the prison's tormenting mascot) round out the great ensemble, along with Erin Moon as Anslem, Gaddo's child and fellow imprisoned clown. Bandhu and Hussong make a well-matched pair. A thorough design team creates a detailed nightmarish world invoking the right theatrical moodiness inspired by Dante.