Jason Nodler's King Ubu Is King may be the silliest, most absurd and irreverent show that the folks at Infernal Bridegroom Productions have put together yet. Loosely based on Alfred Jarry's late-19th-century script Ubu Roi, a seminal work of the absurdist tradition, Nodler's bizarre play is filled with ridiculous characters whose superhero stories are ultimately pointless and often outrageously funny.
The deliciously ironic Andy Nelson sets the tone for the entire evening when he steps on stage to give the preshow introduction. He stands front and center, note card in hand, serious as dirt. He tells what's coming at DiverseWorks, asks for money, points the way to the bathroom, all the standard stuff. But something's weird. His gray, I'm-a-business-manager suit is so wrinkled it looks as though it spent the last two years wadded at the bottom of a brown paper bag.
And it's a little bit odd that he's smoking a cigarette. He pulls a long satisfying drag off the thing, pauses, and is suddenly reminded of something else: "Don't smoke," he says. "Only stupid people smoke." Smoke curls from his lips. "I can smoke," he says, "but you can't."
He points to a chair at the corner of the stage on which sits a dunce cap (an image from Jarry's original play). He invites any offender who must smoke to do so in the chair, in the cap (yes, someone tried it at intermission). In other words, it's okay to smoke on stage and not okay to smoke in the audience. The absurdity of this and other social conventions is skinned and roasted over the flames in Nodler's wickedly iconoclastic script. Add performers who have as much acid wit and dead-on timing as Andy Nelson, and you've got a night of wicked, strange theater unlike anything you're likely to see from another company in Houston.
Act One is a collage of skit-like scenes that reside somewhere among Saturday Night Live, Monty Python and Eugene Ionesco's The Bald Soprano. A group of "Famous Actors" arrives in a big wooden box at the house of everyman Tom (Jim Parsons), only to wreak havoc on his life. Tom's just an ordinary guy who sits around munching Lays Potato Chips and watching Beverly Hills 90210 (the theme song plays over the TV). Songs by Journey move him to tears. He's dazzled by fame and is ecstatic to have the "Famous Actors" at his house. But it's not long before they put him through a series of ludicrous, mean-spirited tests, offering him choices such as run a mile, eat a sandwich or die of a broken heart.
The "Famous Actors" suffer from a ceaseless sense of ennui as they sit around waiting for the phone to ring. When it does, they find out they aren't "ethnically diverse" enough to get grant money. Hollywood eventually calls. They cut a deal and take a million dollars to make a scatological film about a man who waits for the bus and a girl who's looking for a bathroom.
The disparate scenes are peculiar, funny and seemingly illogical, but eventually they begin to add up. King Ubu Is King evolves into a self-conscious indictment of contemporary realism. Nodler's script calls into question the very notion of linear narrative, where every story has value and characters' lives are scripted into purposeful direction. The impossible citizens of King Ubu reside in a funny, dark and pessimistic world of chicken plays and cruel practical jokes, a world without intrinsic meaning. Lives turn inside out at any moment; every bathroom in the universe could inexplicably shut down. And sometimes there's nothing to do but laugh at the absurdity of it all. Anything is bound to happen. Act Two proves it.
Tom and the "Famous Actors" become a gang of superheroes who are in desperate need of a mission. Here the IBP performers give us absolute silliness at its best. And Jodi Bobrovsky's hilarious superhero costumes are terrific. There's Milkmaiden (Tamarie Cooper), a big-breasted mama hero whose nipples are forever dripping milk. Her secret lover is Underwater Man (Andy Nelson), who flaps around in flippers and a mask, his belly hanging over his spandex swimsuit. The whole gang is headed up by Mister Nice Guy (Jim Parsons), a feel-good leader who is perpetually popping pills to keep that happy grin.
They battle such villains as Cock (Steven Barnett), whose gigantic penis drags the floor, and Bacteria Man (Troy Schulze). He suffers a bad case of amnesia and ends up encamped with the good guys. What, they wonder, does the BM on his supersuit stands for? There's the obvious potty joke. But no, they decide it's not that. Is it Barry Manilow? Butt Master? Bugger Man? The whole superhero world comes to a crashing halt when they realize that Bacteria Man has killed all the ordinary people outside superhero headquarters. Good guys and villains alike end up in a bar with nothing to do but hang out and drink. They arrive at the same place the "Famous Actors" left off. Their now meaningless lives are filled with ennui.
Life, or so this play posits, has no intrinsic meaning or value. All the stories we live by, including when and where it's okay to smoke, are simply narratives we've imposed on a chaotic world to give our lives purpose and order. It's an interesting, if pessimistic, philosophy. But the forever outrageous troupe of knuckleheads at Infernal Bridegroom explores it with a good deal of infectious joy and wit.
King Ubu Is King plays through December 19 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 223-8346.
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