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Absurd Plays for the Holidays

The lingering fragrance in the Houston air this holiday season isn't roasted chestnuts, but something wicked and polluted. And apparently the noxious odeur has gone straight to the heads of three local theater groups.

Like supervillains spawned from toxic waste, three new productions (all opening this weekend) offer debauchery and madness as an alternative to peace on earth. With elements of horror, the circus and commedia dell'arte, Infernal Bridegroom Productions' King Ubu is King, Atomic Cafe's Silent Night, Deadly Night and Dos Chicas Productions' The Nylon Tunnel -- by coincidence, collective unconsciousness or mutual espionage -- are serving up original "sublime nonsense" as their December dish.

Absurdity in drama begins with 19th-century playwright, poet and iconoclast Alfred Jarry -- author of the Ubu plays, inventor of "Pataphysics" and the inspiration for Infernal Bridegroom's King Ubu Is King. When Jarry's first play Ubu Roi opened at the Theatre de L'Oeuvre in 1896, it assaulted virtually every sacred tenet of Aristotelian theater, and practically caused a riot -- precisely the reaction that Jarry sought.

King Ubu Is King, written and directed by IBP artistic director Jason Nodler and performed at DiverseWorks, is a modern take on the irrationality and meaninglessness in daily life -- "an Ubu for the 1990s." Divided into two unrelated acts, King Ubu includes a cast of superheroes and supervillians with names like Bacteria Man, Girlie Girl and the Prozac-powered Mr. Nice Guy, plus what IBP describes as "graphic language, stupid dances, ridiculous music and raw meat." Not an interpretation of the original Ubu plays, King Ubu Is King has nothing but irreverence and lunacy in common with its predecessor.

A short jaunt from DiverseWorks at Atomic Cafe is actor/director Daniel Treadway's loose adaptation of the slasher film Silent Night, Deadly Night. This dark comedy -- acutely billed as costing less to see than "some lameass Christmas blockbuster" -- is the story of a young boy who witnesses the murder of his parents by a man dressed as Santa Claus. Like Killer Clowns and the Chucky films, Silent Night, Deadly Night inspires the fear of formerly comforting childhood icons; Old Saint Nick's "ho, ho, ho" becomes the cackle of a madman.

The Nylon Tunnel, playing at Commerce Street Art Warehouse, is what author/Dos Chicas member David Harlan dubs "existential slapstick." Narrated by a frog-like man, the play is a fast-paced series of minisitcoms, minimusicals and theater parodies. The evil French exchange student, a shoe salesman with a foot fetish, and an all-hillbilly episode of "The Family Feud" promise to be the most surreal character sketches.

That something in the air this season might be coming from the Houston Ship Channel, but it may also be the smell of meaninglessness triumphing over meaningfulness. The mainstream consumption of the holidays has three plays scrambling for the soothing refuge of the ridiculous. And, as Richard Coe puts it, that in itself is absurdity -- "the freedom of the slave to crawl east along the deck of a boat going west."

-- Andrea Grover


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