Friday, February 21, 2014

Ubu Roi in San Francisco

Alfred Jarry: Ubu Roi
translated from the French by Rob Melrose
Directed by Yury Urnov
The Cutting Ball Theater
277 Taylor Street, San Francisco;

Extended to March 9, 2014
A FRIEND, WHO IS an actor himself, posts (on Facebook) a link to this blogpost by Mike Lew, whose work I do not know. The post offers more for thought than its unfortunate heading, "Arts Education Won't Save Us from Boring, Inaccessible Theater", might indicate. (Of course this is the usual nature of headings and headlines.)

Lew writes that theater, to reassert itself in a time of declining attendance (which I'm not sure is true in San Francisco), should undertake the following "fixes":
•To attract a young, diverse audience, present work that’s reflective of a young, diverse audience.
•Widen the perspectives being presented onstage.
•Place more faith in the artists.
•More funding for artists, less funding for buildings.
•Make the theater a more friendly and welcoming place.
•Make seeing theater easier on working parents.
•Lower the barrier of entry by lowering ticket prices.
All of this is welcome comment, and much of it is being addressed in the San Francisco Bay Area. Last week we saw two plays whose theaters, productions, and acting seemed to me to address Lew's points. Perhaps the ticket prices did as well: I'm not too attentive to the prevailing costs of other kinds of entertainment. (On my fixed income, though, I must admit that our budget is strained by our theater attendance, running to a dozen or two plays in the course of a year.)

I do have a problem, though, with one paragraph in his post — the one which presumably suggested the heading:
In truth theaters have a serious curatorial problem when it comes to choosing plays that a young, diverse audience can get behind. The fantastic documentary Miss Representation introduces the concept of symbolic annihilation in the media, and it applies exceedingly well to the theater. Why would young people (or people of color, or women) bother coming to the theater when they’re so rarely depicted onstage, and when they're so rarely in command of the artistic process? Is our dwindling audience truly a reflection of the educational landscape, or is it a reflection of a chronic homogeneity onstage exacerbated by an attendant homogeneity in our staffing?
[His links]

It seems to me this paragraph is predicated on the notion that one attends theater in order to verify one's own, or one's group's, existence. Surely one's existence is not in question, so this must stand for something else: a verification of one's relevance to one's context — social, historical, natural. I understand the contemporary anxieties that contribute to the generally felt need for this kind of verification, but I'm not sure I agree that theater companies have a curatorial responsibility to supply it.

I do think, pace Mike Lew, that "arts education" can address the problem of theatrical relevance: the problem is that we think of "education" as synonymous with "schooling"; that we've delegated education almost exclusively to the public and private schools. I often see parents with children in restaurants: these kids are being "taught" to attend restaurants, to observe social conventions concerned with dining in public, to appreciate diverse cuisines. I wish I more often saw children accompanying their parents in the theater.

It will be argued that the subtleties and references in the theater will elude them, that they won't "understand" the play. It's in the nature of childhood not to "understand"; children are used to it. I suspect they even enjoy it; I know I did: I still do. Theater is not boring or inaccessible because its literature is subtle, arcane, or referential. If it (or anything) is boring, that's the fault of an attendee who is demanding; if it (or anything) is inaccessible, that's because the means of access have not been provided.

Last week we saw two plays full of reference, both foreign, both complex, both with the added layer of difficulty that they depended, some of the time, on irony. I've already written (here) about Jerusalem, by the British playwright Jez Butterworth; the play and its production have increased in my appreciation since writing that post. (This often happens, and is one of the reasons I don't really like to be thought of as a "critic".) Let me tell you now about the second play we saw.

Over the years we've seen a number of productions of Alfred Jarry's absurdist masterpiece Ubu Roi. This is one of the best of them. The translation seemed to me to be very close, yet practical for American actors, audiences, and the stage. (I haven't re-read the play, either in French or English, for many years.) Yury Urnov's direction is inventive, consistent, always pressing forward though allowing frequent changes of pace and moments for the re-gathering of stage energy.

David Sinaiko is a marvelous Father Ubu: greedy and impetuous, childish and charming, vicious and hilarious. Ponder Goddard provides an opulent, intelligent Mother Ubu. It was she who nailed the play's references to Macbeth: one truly wants to see this pair in the Scottish Play, preferably in a similarly enterprising production.

The remaining cast — royalty, soldiers, crowds, armies, peasants, a bear, and so on — are ingeniously collapsed onto an ensemble of four: Marilet Martinez, Andrew P. Quick, Nathaniel Justiniano, and William Boynton, each and all of whom provide flashes of individuation, of articulation, of brilliance. The entire cast is completely engsging, and engaged in the play.

The function of theater, I've often thought, is to provide community — a shared understanding of shared experience in the human condition, subject to Nature, Society, History, not to mention Comedy and Romance. I think it's true that many of us make too Serious A Thing. One comment on my friend's Facebook link to Mike Lew's blogpost conveys a common response:
My pet peeve with "serious" movies, and somewhat with theater, is the makers' desire to be taken seriously, which is always fatal. I call it medicinal art — choke it down, it's good for you.
Ubu Roi is "serious," but pretends to demand to be taken as pure satirical entertainment; I can't imagine anyone responding to it peevishly. Shakespeare, I think, would have loved it, and would have appreciated this production. I'd happily see it again.


Curtis Faville said...

In 1972-73, we lived at 2021 Francisco, right around the corner from where Serendipity then existed. (Peter moved it down towards the western end of University Avenue some time later. Today, part of the space Peter owned is occupied by the Italian restaurant Corso.)

The problems of theatre production are complex and far beyond the scope of a blog post, but I think a few obvious observations can be made.

Theatre production in an urban setting is an expensive proposition. The risks inherent in leasing or holding an adequate space, the difficulties of supporting casts, production staff, and materials, and all the legal and financial issues involved, are great--perhaps even overwhelming.

The subject-matter of artistic works has changed over the centuries. Unlike Elizabethan dramaturgy, we seldom focus on royalty. Unlike Greek drama, we aren't preoccupied with supernatural powers and interventions. Ever since the emergence of social emancipation in the 18th and 19th Centuries, we've believed that art can and perhaps should reflect the political and social progression(s) of history. The 1930's in America saw a socially conscious drama which sought to give voice to a rising call for social justice. There have been plays (and playwrights) pushing their various respective agendas right and left for several decades.

Each generation believes itself to be uniquely betrayed and neglected; each demands that art reflect the "realities" of the present dilemma(s), and devote itself to "relevant themes" that speak to its particular inspired indignation.

That's a familiar and proper pattern in our culture.

Mr. Lew wants stipends and subsidies and free child care and artistic license. These are the same things previous generations of young dramatists have demanded.

I wish him good luck. Live entertainment is on a steady decline. Even movie houses are failing.

Charles Shere said...

In 1972-73, we lived at 2021 Francisco, right around the corner from where Serendipity then existed. (Peter moved it down towards the western end of University Avenue some time later. Today, part of the space Peter owned is occupied by the Italian restaurant Corso.)

For two men who have never met, to the best of my knowledge, Curtis, our lives like our thought-processes are curiously wound, like the famous double helix. We lived at 1947 Francisco until 1973, when we moved west to Curtis Street.

I did enter Serendipity once or twice in its first digs, on Shattuck Avenue, where as you say Corso now stands. I was in the Joyce market in those days, the late 1960s, and found things there. I was never attracted to Peter Howard, finding him condescending; but that was perhaos a projection from my own feelings of inadequacy.

(Readers of The Eastside View may wonder why we're going on about Serendipity Books here: it's because I left a comment on a post at Curtis's blog
The Compass Rose, which I find interesting.

(And, by the way, a fine book could be written on the history of Berkeley bookshops. Please, someone?)

As to your points on theater — I'll get to them soon in another post.