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Jabu

By New York City
Kevin T. Moore and Nicola Barber in Jabu(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Kevin T. Moore and Nicola Barber in Jabu
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Elizabeth Swados's concerted attempts to be more pretentious than thou have been somewhat curtailed since Joseph Papp championed her back in the day. Now, however, she has returned and is at it again. The results may excite those who share her retrograde notions of the avant-garde but will probably bore the baggy pants off everybody else.

Her new show was developed at the Alley Theatre and is now being presented by the resident Bat company at Jim Simpson's Flea Theater. It's a musical biography of the seminal French absurdist Alfred Jarry, with generous helpings of his iconoclastic Ubu Roi thrown in for good measure. Swados calls the insistent mess Jabu, a conflation of Jarry and Ubu. Maybe she's hoping that patrons will pick up on the rhyme with "taboo." Of course, musical comedy followers may not cotton to a reminder of last year's Taboo, which shares some similarities with Jabu in terms of in-your-face, Leigh Bowery-influenced performance art but which was light years better. (That's not saying much.)

Apparently, Swados is taken with Jarry as a sort of Every-scorned-artist. Jarry created the marauding Pa and Ma Ubu as representatives of the dumbed-down middle class; it's more than possible that Swados identifies with the author and with his dedication to pushing the art envelope while epater-ing the bourgeoisie. She certainly gets Jarry-like with contemporary swipes: "Back in Crawford...," Pa Ubu (Kevin T. Moore) blurts out in one anti-George W. Bush sally, and there's a blunted mention of the Social Security system being undermined. (Might Swados have considered calling the piece Dubyu?)

Swados has done well her research on Jarry's beset life and deploys it throughout her carnival-midway show. Prolific and persistent, Jarry (Matt Wilson, speaking with odd inflections) is an illustration of the fact that absinthe makes the mind and body grow weaker. As the musical progresses and Jarry is befriended by vanguard Le Mercure editors Madame de Rachilde (Danielle Levanas) and Alfred Vallette (John Pizzolato), the playwright-poet-short story writer works toward December 10, 1896, when Ubu Roi debuts before shocked crowds. Then, as his dissolute behavior accelerates and he gets mired in his notion of pataphysics and other eccentric ideas, he slips away to death.

The story of Jarry's depressing existence is narrated by Madame de Rachilde. As she speaks, the other 17 members of the cast drag Sue Rees's set pieces around under Garin Marschall's shifting lights. Occasionally, they draw back curtains shielding an upstage screen on which Rees shows videos reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python collages. Sometimes, the actors -- extra-busy leaping in and out of Melissa Schlachtmeyer's motley costumes -- portray the people in Jarry's life who either glorify or deride him. At other times, they're players in Jarry's Pa Ubu entries. More than once, they're called on to be soldiers responding to Pa Ubu's whims; when they do, they invite unwelcome comparisons with satires such as Joan Littlewood's Oh What a Lovely War!.

Emily Mattheson and Matt Wilson in Jabu(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Emily Mattheson and Matt Wilson in Jabu
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
And the cast gets to sing at the drop of a funny hat. The choral sound is frequently effective, although Swados's songs aren't. There are vague echoes of Kurt Weill's brand of hammering oom-pah-pah, but nothing here makes much of an impression. In the past, rumors circulated about Swados's reliance on musicians' improvisations, but the loose talk may have been just that. (The band on hand is populated by Heather Paauwe, Richard Huntley, James Kulp, and Elizabeth Dotson-Westphalen. Kris Kukul is the musical director.) Maybe it doesn't matter if Swados is collaborating with others; knowing what to keep and what to discard is its own talent. What matters is that her rambling songs have no staying power beyond each ditty's final, fading note, while her lyrics deliver no cheer -- perverse or otherwise. One song is constructed around a series of rhymes on "-ight," and another contains this thought: "What does he see in the Seine? / I've asked him again and again."

Swados, who also directs her work (and that's rarely a smart idea), isn't helped by The Bats. Here, the troupe resembles high school students feeling their oats in the graduation play. With perhaps two exceptions -- Danielle Levanas as Madame de Rachilde and Emily Mattheson as Charlotte Jarry -- they mistake attitudinizing for emoting. And, brother, are they full of smug attitudes and self-satisfied moues! But the blame is not theirs. It's not, for instance, Kevin T. Moore's fault that he has little clue how to present Ubu; rather, it's Swados failure of direction. (Perhaps she was too busy with other aspects of the production to guide the actors.)

As Jabu gets underway, the grimacing Jarry makes a comment about critics who discuss (read: dismiss) a play before seeing it. He's repeating a popular misconception about reviewers. What we might dismiss -- after seeing a piece, of course -- is its pretensions to being avant-garde when it's actually derriere-garde in the extreme. For fear of seeming "out of the loop," audiences nowadays are disposed to accept anything that pats itself on the back for being avant-garde. Warning: Jabu so isn't.


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