Cries of “Hornstrumpot!” and “By my green candle!” mingle strangely with the savage shrieks of warring pom-pom girls and feel-good admonitions to “send your energy” in the Shotgun Players’ Ubu for President. The play is Shotgun’s offering for their annual free outdoor theater extraganza at John Hinkel Park, and it coincides nicely with election season as the group confabulates the specter of Alfred Jarry’s seminal avant-garde play, Ubu Roi, with a bunch of ghost images from the media.
Following the basic plotline of Jarry’s unique blend of human puppet show, Shakespeare parody and Symbolist sublimation, Josh Costello (who has directed for the Magic in San Francisco, as well as the Crucible in Oakland, and was Impact’s first artistic director in Berkeley) has written a broad burlesque of contemporary popular culture.
Directed by Shotgun founder Patrick Dooley, the episodes from the original Ubu cut with skit-like inserts play like sketch comedy. The songs (lyrics by Dave Garrett, musical direction by Dave Malloy, just off Beowulf and late of Clown Bible) are from any grade school collection of patriotic anthems and American folksongs. The lyrics are warped to convey the silliness of the singers, cartoonish characters who have taken over the animation studio.
From the entrance of Ma and Pa Ubu (Carla Pantoja with a yard-tall hot pink beehive hairdo and kit-kat dark glasses, Dave Garrett with Ubu’s signature stomach-level spiral and a French revolutionary red cap) as spectators, sitting down in lawnchairs, the Ubus are portrayed as trailer trash churls, versus the rather bourgeois King (Gary Grossman), who steps down to run against Ubu for president, and his monstrously suburbanite Princess (prince in the original) of a daughter (Casi Maggio), who takes up the royalist opposition after Ubu steps on the King’s foot and assassinates him (the original burlesqued Macbeth).
There’s also a cloyingly feel-good candidate, Ming Jamal Wounded Knee (or Eagle) Goldstein (Sung Min Park), who canvasses the audience before the show begins. There’s a Debraining Machine, but no voting machines. By the concluding song, the action and characters have stretched every which way over the landscape like Silly Putty.
The show’s not supposed to be more than inspired by Jarry, but it’s a good moment to say something about the man who influenced both Picasso and Miro, whom Antonin Artaud named his own theater company after, and whose creations captivated pop artists like Frank Zappa and of course avant-rock band Pere Ubu.
Out of a schoolboy puppet show that slagged a pompous teacher, Jarry realized a sublimely rapacious character, whose absurd self-absorption and obliviousness attains metaphysical heights.
From the opening expletive, “Merde!” to the wholesale slaughter of nobility and peasant alike by the Debraining Machine, the play devours itself as gluttonous Ubu shamelessly aggrandizes himself. W. B. Yeats, who was present at the opening night riot (a century-long tradition at Parisian avant-garde events), called it a harbinger of “the Savage God.”
Jarry was a Breton, in the line of other dramatists of Celtic extraction (preceded by Victor Hugo and Villiers De L’Isle-Adam with his proto-Ubu, Tribulat Bonhomet; followed by John Synge, Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw and Ramon Del Valle-Inclan from Galicia), all of whom drew what would later be called characters of alienation (or defamiliarization) from a time-honored Celtic routine of pompous self-parody and obliviousness, king and jester at once.
Through this deadpan, everyone becomes implicated. “A Celt can never laugh at himself,” said Oliver St. John Gogarty (whom Joyce dragooned as “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” to introduce Ulysses). Or never laugh at himself alone, a self-caricature in a world of grotesques.
Dave Garrett and Carla Pantoja seem to be up to the meta-Freudian ferocities of the Ubu ménage, but they portray them as genial louts with attitude. Post-
cracker barrel populism replaces a bloated cultural parody, the Romantics’ overwrought version of Shakespeare as an assault vehicle. The rest isn’t silence, more like MAD TV.
Jarry turned theater inside out with a humorous reign of terror and banality, cut with delirious flights of imagination: “Clichés are the armature of the Absolute.”
Andre Gide recorded how he took on Ubu as his public persona in The Coutnerfeiters and his journals. The Mime Troupe, under R. G. Davis, made political hay of Ubu in the ’60s; now, the Shotgun Players, in the spirit of fun, make a joyful noise instead.
UBU FOR PRESIDENT
4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 14 at John Hinkle Park, Southampton Avenue, off The Arlington.
Free (donations accepted).