[Note: This review is for the original 2014 production of Ubu Sings Ubu. The 2016 encore presentation is at the Highline Ballroom.]
Ubu Sings Ubu.Abrons Arts Center (see Off-Off Broadway). By Alfred Jarry. Songs by Pere Ubu. Adapted by Tony Torn. Directed by Dan Safer and Torn. With Torn and Julie Atlas Muz. Running time: 1hr 45mins. One intermission.
Ubu Sings Ubu: In brief
The reliably discomfiting Tony Torn stars in his own mash-up of Alfred Jarry's savage 1896 absurdist comedy, Ubu Roi, and the music of the avant-garage rock band Pere Ubu. Experimental-burlesque eminence Julie Atlas Muz costars; Torn splits directing duties with Dan Safer.
Ubu Sings Ubu: Theater review by Helen Shaw
The audience is sozzled, plied with liquor from the onstage bar; the performers are soaked, dripping with sweat, makeup and (I'm pretty sure) kielbasa juice. The room is a sponge that can't take another drop. Yet the substance that truly saturates Tony Torn's Ubu Sings Ubu is history, the long tale of experimental-absurdist drama, and a venerated stink rises from every dirty, sexy pore.
First, there's the text: Alfred Jarry's 1896 seminal yawp, Ubu Roi, is a filthy joke taken to French extremes, the first cry of Yeats's “savage god,” the inspiration for all the mad saints after him. Jarry's savage bouffon hero, Père Ubu, was the playwright's one real creation; the “absinthe-surrealist” eventually let his character take over his life, referring to himself as Ubu even as he drank himself to death. Torn resists the character a bit better, partly through his transparent sweetness: Red eagle of Poland drawn onto his bald head, belly spilling between his red suspenders, he plays Ubu with an air of pop-eyed menace that slides, perpetually, toward a kind of toddler glee.
Then there's the music: While adapter-codirector-star Torn has left much of the play intact—Ubu still swears by his “green candle”; still usurps the Polish throne; still debauches, feasts and murders with abandon—this Ubu also scream-sings songs by the avant-garage band Pere Ubu. “Don't need a cure, need a final solution!” the insane usurper shrieks at us, while backup “Ubettes” grind and the bartender pours himself another vodka-and-cherry. These numbers are splendid, enraged, hilarious and fucking well played by Vera Beren and her merry band. I almost wish directors Torn and Dan Safer had gone full rock-show, ripped the risers out and made us stand. You want the stickiness of, say, Webster Hall underfoot when this kind of lunacy is banging out of the speakers.
Ultimately, there's New York performance history wherever you look: Torn dedicates the show to the late Reza Abdoh; Torn himself is the crucial muse in works by Richard Foreman and, recently, Jay Scheib. Neoburlesque superstar Julie Atlas Muz plays the Lady Macbeth–ish Mère Ubu, her weird, deadpan acting style and wobbly singing voice showing off a delightfully punk disregard for virtuosity. Safer too appears, usually hanging out to one side, wriggling just off the beat, slinky in his fishnet top.
No one quite knows their lines; supporting characters jam moodily on guitars and sometimes forget their entrances. Audience members take photos and post them on Facebook: “Ubu loves social media!” growls Torn. Frankly, Ubu Sings Ubu is a silly, disreputable mess, which, in this case, denotes high praise. I might wish that things were smokier and darker, that we had to jostle more to see, that I had spilled my drink instead of tucking it under my seat. But perhaps that's where our experimental performance history has led us—what was once transgressive, 19th-century, riot-causing mayhem is now jolly, ridiculous, embracing fun.—Theater review by Helen Shaw