'Ubu Roi' Serves Up Searing Scatological Satire, Feb. 21-25
Muhlenberg College’s Francine Roussel directs a politically resonant production of a century-old absurdist French play that she says shows ‘not a single wrinkle.’
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“Ubu Roi” kicks off the Muhlenberg College theater and dance department’s spring Mainstage theater season. Alfred Jarry’s absurd — and surprisingly timely — 19th century play is directed by theater faculty member Francine Roussel.
“‘Ubu’ is about the rise and fall of ambition and the abuse of political power,” Roussel says. “It’s violent, it has a great sense of humor — and it is, unfortunately, totally real.”
“Ubu Roi” has a long and controversial history; in fact, a riot broke out as the curtain fell on opening night in Paris in 1896. Jarry’s bizarre, subversive little play was shouted down as an ugly vulgarity and outlawed from the French stage. Since the dust has settled, though, theater historians have come to view the play as an essential work of the avant-garde theater — a precursor to Dada, Surrealism, and the Theater of the Absurd.
Roussel says audiences will witness a cruel and idiotic dictator making a series of increasingly bad political decisions, fueled by his own ego and hunger for power, control, and food.
“This should sound familiar,” she says.
“When I saw what was going on with Trump, it was suddenly urgent, imperative to put on this play at this time,” Roussel says. “Everything was consistent — a personality that is both narcissistic and autocratic can change democracy to tyranny over time, and we can see that in the play and in the news.”
Muhlenberg senior David Raccio, who plays Papa Ubu, the titular despot, agrees.
“We’ve been really willing to weave Donald Trump and this current American moment into the context of the play,” he says.
“It seems like there’s daily news about the Trump administration that directly relates to what we’re doing. It’s creepy,” says Gabi Adamo ’18, who plays manipulative matriarch Mama Ubu. “Through all of those weird, dark moments, Francine has been this beacon of light that really lets us be bold, try new things, and be a little silly, too.”
“Ubu Roi” parodies Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” with elements of “Hamlet” and “King Lear” tossed in for good measure. Originally conceived to mock Jarry’s terrible physics teacher, the character of Ubu eventually grew into a rotund, capricious tyrant who leads a revolution, kills the King of Poland, and gets attacked by a bear — all in the course of a scandalous hour and a half.
“So many big, ridiculous things happen — you can’t even imagine,” Raccio says. “There are huge battles, horses to mount, crazy props that make no sense, and a bunch of surprises.”
“My favorite part is getting to see the physical tricks people come up with,” Adamo says. “Having Mike at rehearsal, working with the cast, has been so beneficial.” Faculty member Michael G. Chin choreographs and fight-directs the enormous amount of stunt work and stage combat in the show.
Roussel credits her creative team as one of the show’s great strengths, citing Chin, scenic and lighting designer Curtis Dretsch, costume designer Alisa Sickora Kleckner, and composer Doug Ovens. They have worked together to create a versatile, chaotic set, brilliantly absurd costumes, and pompous fanfares that play the idiot king into battle and disaster.
“There is a wealth of talented, passionate people working on ‘Ubu’ who are committed to making it memorable and resonant,” Roussel says.
Adamo believes this production will incite the Muhlenberg community into political engagement.
“I have a feeling we’re going to be talking about this show for a while,” she says, “not just in theater classes, but in political science classes, history classes, and more.
“Ubu Roi” plays Feb. 21-25 in the Studio Theatre in Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 West Chew St., Allentown. Showtimes are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Regular admission tickets are $15. Tickets for youth and LVAIC students and staff are $8. The production is intended for mature audiences.
Tickets can be purchased online or by phone at 484-664-3333.
Panel Discussion: A panel of experts will participate in a panel discussion titled “Ubu Roi: It’s Even Worse Than You Think,” on Friday, Feb. 23, 2 to 3:15 p.m. Professors from several of Muhlenberg’s academic departments will discuss what happens when politics becomes entertainment. Participants include Jeremy Teissere, chair and Stanley Road Professor of Neuroscience; Chris Borick, professor of political science; Leticia Robles-Moreno, visiting assistant professor of theater; and Eileen McEwan, associate professor of French and chair of languages, literatures and cultures. James Peck, professor of theatre, will serve as moderator. The discussion will take place in the Studio Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance. Admission is free and open to the public.