Alfred Jarry’s 1896 satire “Ubu Roi” begins, famously, with Ubu shrieking “Merdre!” That’s French for “s—,” with the extra R added for emphasis. The Parisian opening-night audience freaked.
Today, such profanity is unlikely to ruffle an avant-garde audience such as Cutting Ball Theater’s.
So in the current production of artistic director Rob Melrose’s succinct, fluid new translation of Jarry’s text, the play’s imaginative director Yury Urnov (Russian-born and -trained) opens with Ubu screaming “S—!” and racing backstage to the bathroom. Disconcertingly literal sound effects follow.
It nicely sets the tone for this antic, wonderfully physical, modern-dress comedy of greed and power lust, widely considered to be a precursor to the mid-20th-century Theatre of the Absurd movement, influencing such playwrights as Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco.
A la “Macbeth,” Ubu’s sly wife urges him to kill King Wenceslas and crown himself King of Poland.
Ubu goes haywire. Once he commits murder, with the help of his wife and henchmen, he is determined also to kill the czar and acquire all the riches and power in the world. The cowed citizens submit, while his lisping son (wearing a bib that reads “Here Comes Trouble”) organizes a rebellion.
Bits of other Shakespeare plays figure in: “Hamlet” (the ghost), “Romeo and Juliet” (Mother Ubu creeping around in a crypt) and “The Winter’s Tale” (the famous bear, appearing here as a plastic honey-bear dispenser).
The action unfolds in a sleek modern kitchen with moveable units. The clever set by Michael Locher protrudes into the audience, which is seated on three sides.
The performers — featuring David Sinaiko as the cruelly amoral yet childlike wacko Ubu, and Ponder Goddard as the seductive Mother Ubu — clamber over the set pieces, sometimes as they’re being moved, and pop, hilariously, in and out of cupboards and from under the sink.
Klezmer tunes, classical waltzes and more, provide a great background and inter-scene score. The sound design is by Cliff Caruthers.
And fruit and vegetables are used in metaphorical and extremely messy ways (and eaten, too).
Rather lengthy, the show’s energy flags at points and at other times the scenes feel repetitious. But its an often highly entertaining work with comically anachronistic touches, and a theme of ruthless acquisition that can resonate with modern audiences. This re-envisioned quasi-classic is a wonderful addition to Cutting Ball’s repertoire.
And, as always at the Ball, the physically adept cast, including William Boynton, Marilet Martinez, Andrew P. Quick and Nathaniel Justiniano, is excellent.
Ubu Roi Presented by Cutting Ball Theater
Where: Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, closes Feb. 23
Tickets: $10 to $50