Alfred Jarry’s absurd and offensive Ubu Roi set off riots when the play premiered in 1896, so naturally it was later latched onto by the dada and surrealist movements and has been revived frequently ever since. A scatological send-up of Macbeth in which a stupid, vicious and cowardly glutton rises to power through duplicitous schemes, it also naturally resonates in present-day America. Now playing for free weekend afternoons in John Hinkel Park in Berkeley, Shotgun Players’ Ubu for President doesn’t go for the obvious Bush-bashing, however — it just shows a worst-case scenario when any idiot can become president.
Shaped somewhat by actors’ improvisations in rehearsal, Josh Costello’s adaptation scraps most of the Macbeth parody in Ubu’s sudden rise to power, replacing it with a lot of new campaign antics including a hysterical five-way debate. Rather than simply plotting to kill the king, the people push for democracy and King Wenceslas magnanimously decides to run for president and abdicate when he wins.
Democratic rabble-rouser Ming Jamal Joaquin Wounded Knee Goldstein is his only halfway serious competition until Ma Ubu goads Pa Ubu into getting off his ass to run for president. Soon daddy’s demands of campaign-trail propriety spur the petulant Princess Buggerless to launch her own competing “princess power” campaign — which is all the funnier because the play premiered shortly after McCain’s commercial equating Obama with Paris Hilton inspired Hilton to release her own parody campaign video.
Casi Maggio is a comic highlight as the bubbly teen princess, this Ubu‘s version of Prince Bougrelas, the avenging son of the slain king in Jarry’s original play, and she’s priceless as a ridiculously unlikely rebel leader. Sung Min Park is hilariously spaced out and touchy-feely as new character Ming, from his beginning as an earnest student activist to his increasingly way-out speeches as some kind of new age prophet. In fact, overall the show is funniest and most effective when it’s least faithful to the original.
Whatever echoes of Macbeth are lost are made up for by Shakespeare quotes flying every which way. There are a lot of new scatological gags that are very true to the tone of the original, including changing Captain Bordure to MacNure so that he can be called “Manure” all the time. The setting is changed from Poland to the mythical land of Fugall and is full of empty campaign promises to the “Fuggen” people. There’s a bit of audience participation, with the crowd invited to vote during intermission and someone drafted to play a lackey’s role in the second act.
There’s still a lot of Ubu Roi left in this version, and once Ubu comes to power things go to pot pretty much the way they do in the original play. Another thing retained is the deliberately misspelled but frequently exclaimed “merdre” of the original, sometimes translated as “shittr,” is here a more euphonious “pshit!” While the garbled cussing was all very shocking in its day, now it and the groin-clutching oath “by my green candle” come off as perplexingly leaden shticks (or “pshticks”) in an otherwise riotous show.
Part of the problem may be the delivery: both are exclaimed with gusto by Dave Garrett as Ubu but land with a thud. Garrett’s Ubu is an appealingly hapless and lubberly lout, but for all Ubu’s appalling greed and brutality, he’s almost a straight man in this production. Not only is he buffeted around by forces he’s too dim-witted to understand, which was always the case, but now he has to contend with personalities more outrageous than his.
So it’s not his fault, and certainly not for lack of trying, that the old pshit just isn’t quite as funny as the new, which is much better news than if the reverse were true. What they’ve done to the play is great — if anything, they should do more of it.
Carla Pantoja plays Ma Ubu as a Miami matron in a high pink Marge Simpson bouffant, and Gary Grossman is an amusingly unctuous King Wenceslas, who can’t hide his pompousness behind his newfound populism. Megan Guzman as the queen is a cartoonish lush, but no less funny for her broadness. Ryan O’Donnell makes a sympathetic straight man as Captain MacNure, even when upstaged by his cock-and-balls sword hilt.
Valera Coble’s costumes are appropriately garish and clownlike, nicely complemented by Alf Pollard’s simple set of bright circus stripes on fabric like the exterior of a big top. A lot of amusing songs are scattered throughout the play, all of them to the tune of well-known ditties like “Good King Wenceslas,” “Oh! Susanna,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with clever lyrics by Garrett and Costello.
Patrick Dooley’s madcap staging is long on slapstick and silliness, with almost necessarily mixed results. When you throw that much stuff against the wall, only some of it’s going to stick. The insistent energy of the show is infectious, and it’s hard not to get swept up in it. Why fight it? If you don’t vote for Ubu, he’s just going to cheat and win anyway.