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As Vernal & Sere's "Ubu" opens, the ensemble plays schoolchildren being indoctrinated with one of Hamlet's most famous lines. At the board: Brian Epperson and Erin Boswell as Papa and Mama Ubu. (Photos by Mariana Novak)

Review: Vernel & Sere’s creative “Ubu” feels tired, falls short of avant-garde ambitions

Vernal & Sere’s Ubu clearly wants to be an edgy experience, as evidenced upfront in the program, which includes a disclaimer note tucked into the fold: “Attention: For this evening’s performance, there will be a brief 15-minute orgy during intermission.”

Lest you think they’re blowing smoke, you should know that the entire cast morphs into a giant human wad, writhing and moaning around the stage (albeit clothed) while people tiptoe out to find the bathroom or visit the concession stand.

There are no breaks for the actors — or the audience, really — in this often inventive but overall flawed restaging of the infamous 19th-century play Ubu Roi by French playwright Alfred Jarry, who in his very short lifetime (he died at age 34) managed to scandalize most of theatergoing Paris. (Vernal & Sere Theatre Company’s staging runs through March 1 at the Windmill in East Point.)

Erin Boswell plays Mama Ubu as a wilder, more profane version of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.

When Ubu Roi debuted in December 1896, it was so immediately unpopular and unpalatable that it opened and closed the same night. Reportedly, it even incited a riot. (Fun fact: One of the premiere’s showgoers that fateful night was renowned Irish poet W.B. Yeats. Like almost everyone else, Yeats wasn’t a fan.)

The notoriety the play gained more than a hundred years ago, like many polemical works throughout history, is probably due to it being ahead of its time. As The Paris Review noted in a 2015 essay: Ubu Roi “prefigured modernism, surrealism, Dadaism and the Theater of the Absurd.”

In modern restagings, the play has been described as “punk,” likely, in part, because of the self-destructive mythos of Jarry himself, whose day reportedly commenced by “consuming two liters of white wine, then three absinthes between 10 o’clock and midday.” He also apparently enjoyed the effects of ether and was REALLY into riding his bike. In other words, Jarry was kind of the original hipster.

The problem with all this hype around the original work’s incendiary achievements? Today’s audiences are less likely to clutch their pearls at scatological humor and lascivious double entendre. We’ve already experienced everyone from Luis Buñuel and John Waters to Monty Python and Jackass.

As much as it has one, Ubu’s plot — yes, Vernal & Sere has shortened the title — is essentially a heightened, nihilistic parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with themes of toxic ambition, betrayal, treason and the corrupting nature of power interspersed with poop jokes. There’s also a bit of Hamlet and King Lear thrown into the mix.

It all begins compellingly enough. Upon entering the theater, the audience walks past a line of actors standing like statues, their backs turned. The set is a school playground, which is actually quite in line with the play’s origins, since Jarry apparently started writing Ubu Roi at age 15 as a hate letter to his least favorite teacher.

For the first 10 minutes or so, actors move in militant formation, yelling out phrases, many of them jibberish, their faces painted over stark white makeup with exaggerated features, like creepy mimes. It’s striking, if a bit befuddling. At first.

Papa Ubu (Brian Epperson) wages battle with his enemies.

Things pick up when we meet our ersatz Macbeth and Lady Macbeth — Papa and Mama Ubu — who waltz in like an even more deranged and disheveled Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, though alas, there are no darkly funny Sondheim songs to bolster the experience. Instead, the action is overlaid by a pop symphony that includes  “Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire,” “Mr. Clarinet” by The Birthday Party and David Bowie’s “I’m Deranged.”

The Ubus speak with an exaggerated, pretentious affect, uttering terms that mock their attempts to project regality, littering the dialogue with nonsensical but amusing phrases like “the crown of baloney,” “the captain of the dragoons” and “by my green candlestick.”

With as much cunning and ruthlessness as Lady Macbeth, Mama Ubu (an inspired casting choice in the excellent Erin Boswell) exudes cartoonish malevolence and grotesqueness. Boswell’s face remains permanently locked in an unsettlingly wide, unhinged grin. Her actions are like that of an unleashed id.

Boswell lets Mama Ubu infect her entire demeanor and physicality — buzzing, shaking and flailing with insatiable greed and malice. (Boswell provided movement direction along with Erin O’Connor.)

Overall, the cast is strong, with Katerina Eichenberger as Prince Billikins as another standout. Billikins, the son of the murdered king, at first comes across as weak, sullen and sniveling, and then gets poisoned by trauma, emerging from the coup as the epitome of toxic rage and grief.

The team that put this Ubu Roi together brims with creativity. Lindsey Sharpless’ lighting design is magnificent, particularly in a scene where troops march to battle, with intermittent striking greens and reds providing a cinematic feel.

Josh Oberlander’s scenic design delights in the most misanthropic, dark ways. A swing-set/play structure becomes a gallows and a merry-go-round becomes the disemboweling site. (The actors use Silly String instead of fake blood, another nice touch.)

Prince Billikins (Katerina Eichenberger) is haunted by the ghosts of murdered family members.

Director Sawyer Estes, however, falls short of some grandiose ambitions. He makes a number of obvious and predictable choices that weigh down his staging and prevent it from feeling bold or new.

There’s a huge difference between being difficult because you’re grappling with important and uncomfortable assumptions or truth and just making something difficult to sit through for difficulty’s sake. This Ubu Roi is unrelenting and, frankly, a bit exhausting to watch. Give the actors a gold medal, though, for their sheer energy, dexterity and stamina. Someone onstage at any given time is almost always  whispering, simpering, screeching, thrusting, gyrating or prowling.

What’s most disappointing is that so much creativity and talent added up to something that doesn’t hit anywhere close to some of the boundary-pushing work being done by other playwrights today. Take, for contrast, the innovative, mesmerizing production of An Octoroon at Actor’s Express last year. The piece, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is a cutting commentary on the racism of Dion Boucicault’s problematic original 1859 play. Now that was a challenge worth sitting through.

In translating any formerly shocking piece to the modern day, and striving to produce a similar level of astonishment, Vernal & Sere (which takes its name from a Beckett quote) gives us something that feels merely tired.