Ubu Rock

American Repertory Theater

It is often remarked that, in 1898, when Pa Ubu brandished a toilet brush and shouted “merdre” at an unsuspecting French audience, the avant-garde was born. One century later, Andrei Belgrader and Shelley Berc’s Ubu Rock, based on Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, underlines the move from Modernist transgressive shock to post-Modernist parodic glee. More freewheeling romp than Artaudian bit of cruelty, this musical-theater piece, a burlesque of pop-culture quotations, self-reflexivity, and good old-fashioned scatology, blunts what was once cutting edge.

The “plot” (such as it exists) begins with an eight-member chorus harmonizing on the word shit. Like the original Jarry anti-masterpiece, Ubu Rock flips the bird at Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as Ma and Pa Ubu plot to kill King Wenceslas, take over the world, and be “filthy, fucking, shit-stinking rich.” Of course, Ma Ubu (Francine Torres) worries that her husband—who enchants us with a song about his political ambitions (“I can fart anywhere/Scratch my pubic hair”)—lacks the starch for full-throttle fascism. Bursting out of her leopard-skin stretch suit like a zaftig Pebbles Flintstone, she grabs her enormous breasts and crows: “Grow a dick, you fat fuck!” Thus begins Pa Ubu’s bloody campaign.

Ubu Rock employs the requisite sight gags, most of them supremely inventive. A “debrainer” machine pops brains around Andrei Both’s spongy set like an automated tennis-ball server. Limbs and dead babies rain on the audience from flies, and the tsar’s royal robe covers the entire playing area. All the performers are excellent, but Thomas Derrah (as a Joey Ramone–like Captain Trash) comes close to comic genius. The showstopper is “The Button Song,” where a seemingly never-ending tune about a peg-legged captain’s coat (it’s a counting song along the lines of “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”) causes food and garbage to be hurled from the eventually annoyed audience. Derrah, who doubles as the “fucking cripple,” taunts and wields his walker at the audience—much like Pa Ubu a century ago—and even threatens little children, middle finger raised throughout, in a manner that made many jaws drop. Derrah and company clearly know that the best ways to shock an audience these days.

While Ubu Rock is mostly a bawdy bricolage of 22 clever songs by Rusty Magee, it raises some interesting theoretical questions: as a reflection on post-Modern parody, it is decidedly anti-Brechtian (there is a song of the peasants that laments nothing more than “We’re poor/Life sucks”). But in an era of Pat Buchanan’s ascendancy, maybe Belgrader and Berc are on to something: Pa Ubu’s campaign promise to “get rid of clouds to eliminate rainy days” sounds like much of the Panglossian idiocy of recent American politics. Perhaps it’s no accident at all that the Ubus end up vanquished in America, arriving tothe strains of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”

Steven Drukman