UBU ROI: an absurdist rumpus salve for modern times

Reviewed by Phil Saunders - Editor


(Left to Right) Dogpile played by Ben Williamson, Financiers played by Karianne Nelson and Sam Johnson, and (top) Mere Ubu played by Chris Coombs behold their new King Ubu, played by Keefe Healy

There is a theory that says we elect political leaders, or at the very least subconsciously elect, understanding they’ll treat us like shit. It’s a version of Stockholm Syndrome whereby we were raised in a patriarchal system, so deeply embedded in our psyche that we are accustomed to abusive disciplinarian fathers and manipulative mothers who coerce and cajole the household for the so-called greater good. The problem with this archetype is that we no longer want to live in this kind of place. We have come a long way since the late 1800’s, so we like to think we have advanced a little in the last 100 years or so.

Ubu Roi was written and performed only once on December 10, 1896 at Théâtre de l’Œuvre in Paris and was never performed again because a riot broke out. It was translated into Czech in 1928, but banned four decades later after the Soviet invasion in 1968. You can see the pattern here.

The foresight of Idiom Theater’s  director Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao to translate and stage this revolutionary play so soon after the inauguration of Donald Drumpf as our 45th President should not be underestimated.

The Russian Czar played by Leon Charbonneau takes a hold of Pere Ubu and easily overwhelms the cowardly pretender to his throne.

The story follows the delusional rise of the already wealthy Pere Ubu, under the manipulation of his wife Mere Ubu, with the support of his so-called Financiers and (soon murdered) Poland’s King Wenceslas’s Army Chief Dogpile. Ubu proceeds to steal as much as he can before his eventual comedic fall from power.

Now, let’s be clear. This play is absurd on many fronts, and the story can easily be found in Shakespeare or any Greek Tragedy where folly often assails the highest echelons of political and regal life. Murder, corruption, theft and violence all figure into this 90-minute plus romp.

What makes this performance so enlightening is how it fits with the current climate of the American democratic experiment. The outbursts by Pere Ubu, played masterfully by theater instructor and marathon actor Keefe Healy, and Mere Ubu, played by Chris Coombs, easily map on to the shenanigans of our 45th President. Replace Pere and Mere with President Drumpf and his seemingly omnipresent Twitter feed, and you can see how timely this performance could be.

Healy as Pere Ubu is 110 minutes of pure stamina as he is in nearly every scene. The physicality of his performance doesn’t seem to take its toll on this seasoned actor’s delivery, however. Truly amazing to see.

Now before you think to yourself, no, I get enough of this sort of dreary critique on my Facebook feed, think again. There is a certain solace in knowing that what’s happening in America today has happened a lot these past 100 or so years as our democratic quagmire continues to deepen, but the performance of one of the more revolutionary plays ever staged reminds us that history is our best friend in times of political and philosophical upheaval.

Besides, it’s a great performance that will leave you both gobsmacked and belly aching from laughter. Ubu Roi is a wonderful antidote to all the shock and awe we are hearing from Washington DC these days.

Playing at the Sylvia Center for the Arts
205 Prospect St, Bellingham, WA
FEBRUARY 24 to MARCH 11, 2017


To win a pair of tickets, simply send your answer to the following: What underground musical group’s name was inspired by this play and from where did this group emerge in the mid-seventies? A winner will be drawn from correct responses sent to editor@thecrossingguide.com.
Please include UBU ROI in the subject line.

About Phil Saunders (17 Articles)
I have been a professional writer since 1988 when I began my career as a music journalist. In 1998 I began working at CBC, after returning to work with a Master's in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. In 2000 I co-produced a feature film that was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival among other North American film festivals. In 2016 I published a book on the Toronto underground music scene called No Flash Please: Underground Music in Toronto 1987-1992. I am also a photographer and documentary filmmaker.