downtownexpress.com
Volume 19 Issue 39 | February 9 -15, 2007

Theater

Photo by James Ambler

The three-pillow Ubu Roi, Jordan Gelber

Something is rotten in the state of Poland

By Jerry Tallmer

The other night, in a large icebox down on Walker Street, the gross fat upstart King of Poland, a/k/a Ubu Roi, handed me and some others in attendance a mugging (not mug) shot that had just been taken before our eyes of two professional murderers who, hired by Ubu, had done away with good loyal Banquo — though Banquo’s son, the fleeing Fleance, had miraculously escaped into the night.

The photographer was a boozing guy in a cheap 1930s reddish-brown suit, dangling shirt, and pushed-back hat, sort of a tinhorn huckster from a William Inge play, or maybe even O’Neill’s “Hughey.”

This character — Ubu’s Karl Rove, or Mr. Fix-it — is named Cotice, and the actor who plays him, Jeff Biehl, a facial double of the late Warren Finnerty of “The Connection,” also plays the widow of that good King Wenceslas whom Ubu has himself nervously dispatched (“Is this a shittr hook I see before me?”) to gain the crown of Poland.

Confused? Confusing? All you have to do is remember who Alfred Jarry was and who William Shakespeare was, and that where the twain did meet was in Jarry’s “Ubu Roi” (first draft, 1896), many of its elements borrowed from Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (1603-1606).  

Jarry, who in 1907 would die at 34 of drink, drugs, and tuberculosis, at 17 had worked up “Ubu Roi” with some classmates as a schoolboy prank satirizing a teacher they loathed.

The crazy play — prefiguring Dada, Surrealism, and Theater of the Absurd — had a considerable vogue in this city’s Off-Off-Broadway some 30 years ago, and here it is, back again, as “conflated” with “Macbeth” into a hybrid called “The Polish Play” that’s been getting enough laughs to be held over through February 17 at Walker Space. In my case, embarrassed laughs.

It is still very much a schoolboy prank as “devised and directed” by conflator Henry Wishcamper, who a few seasons back gave us an admirable, less scatterbrained staging of Thornton Wilder’s “Pullman Car Hiawatha” for the Keen Company.

Schoolboy pranks much depend on bathroom humor. There’s plenty of that here, as well as bad puns, anachronisms run wild (a graveyard called Bialy Kielbasa, a Tupperware full of gold, etc.), shrieking, groaning, roaring, hamming, and a brief spot of buggery (Pere and Mere Ubu, with clothes on). Not to mention an amusing if inexplicable footrace between tiny, 8-inch marionettes. Of course I happen to hate marionettes.

There are two-pillow, three-pillow, and four-pillow Pere Ubus, i.e., of girth at belly; I would guess Jordan Gelber (any relation of the “Connection’s” Jack Gelber?) to be a three-pillow Pere Ubu — a bubba with a walrus moustache, stew-pan crown, bellowing lungs.

Redheaded Dana Smith-Croll as Mere Ubu is pretty good at giving people the gimlet eye, less good when she opens her mouth for generally (not always) flattened deliveries.

I’m not sure if it’s Lucas Caleb Rooney (as Wenceslas) or somebody else who’s topped with a Kaiser Wilhelm spiked helmet; in any event I remember the spike. Other costumes (by Jennie Mannis) tend to the Alfred Dreyfus French or Greek Zouave periods, loosely speaking. Rounding out the cast, having a ball as one idiot or another, are Torsten Hillhouse, Jacob Knoll, Ryan Ward, and Eunice Wong.

But the real hero of this Katharsis Company production, for my money, is none of the above, nor is it the Placard Reader of the superfluous Brecht-type scene-setting summations. (Dear Placard Reader: It’s “Ubu Roi” — r-r-r-r-r! — not “Ubu Wah.”)

That hero is James Bentley, the “Foley Artist,” which to you and me is a fancy movie-making way of saying the sound man of this “Polish Play.” He’s up front, stage left (our right) when you come in; before him and beside him are all the evidently home-made tools of his trade, equipment that, supplemented by hands, feet, mouth, and throat enable Mr. Bentley to convey to us:
 
Horse’s hoofs (of course)
A horse’s whinny
An eagle’s cry
A cricket’s cry
An owl’s scream
A doorbell
Twittering birds
Chimes
The porter knocking
Beer glug-glug-glugging
Banquo’s ghost making ghost noises
Bootsteps squeaking
 
It was this last, the squeaking bootsteps — how did he do that? — that made me decide to award James Bentley the Croix de Guerre with Palms Warsawa or the Legion d’Honeur Polonaise, or something.

The real truth about “The Polish Play” is that it’s a one-joke play, the joke being the welding of “Ubu Roi” with “Macbeth.” Once you’ve told that joke, or heard that joke, you’ve had it. At the end of Act III (of five acts), nudged along by the unheated premises in which all this took place, I figured I’d had it. I thought I was in Poland, and called for my sled to carry me back to more sensible clime.
 
THE POLISH PLAY. A  conflation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Jarry’s “Ubu Roi,” devised and directed by Henry Wishcamper. A Katharsis Theatre Company presentation through January 17 at Walker Space, 46 Walker Street, two blocks below Canal, (212) 868-4444.

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