Arts & Events

New: Two Plays: 'Gidion's Knot' at the Aurora & Cutting ball's 'Ubu Roi'--Problems in Theatricality

By Ken Bullock
Sunday February 23, 2014 - 10:15:00 AM

After seeing a couple of local productions, I was surprised, in going over notes, to realize that my feelings of dissatisfaction with both came from a complaint of something the two very different plays and productions had in common—or didn't have—a certain downplaying of theatricality, more from the staging in the case of Cutting Ball's 'Ubu Roi,' an old (maybe the original) chestnut of the Avant-Garde (there's an oxymoron!); in the case of the brand-new 'Gidion's Knot' at the Aurora, more from something in the conception of the play itself. 

So what follows is maybe less reviewing these shows, more a reflection on them, on something missing from them ... 

* * * 

"The most intense 90 min of theater you'll see in 2014. Guaranteed." —reads the link to the Aurora website, "theater" in boldface. The show's running time is given as 75 minutes. Alternately, the squib on the link refers to the play as "The parent/teacher that everyone's talking about. Only at Aurora.". 

The immediate impression, say, ten minutes into the show is something a little bit less than "atmospheric" or "brooding," something more like "tentative." Set in a brightly-colored classroom, empty of students (Nina Ball's set), a lone adult grinds away seriously at her desk—Stacy Ross as Heather, a teacher. After a bit, a woman arrives, trying to find where her appointment is, and after going in and out, realizes it's with Heather, though Heather really didn't expect her to come ... 

The "interloper" is Jamie Jones as Corryn, the parent. Corryn's arrived for a conference scheduled about a story her son circulated among students that got him suspended—and Heather's at pains to convince her she shouldn't be there, but instead tend to her grief over what happened between the suspension and the present moment ... 

Much of the play consists of the awkward back-and-forth between the two—overlapping dialogue, misunderstandings and missed signals, dangling questions and assertions—and the sense of waiting: for the characters onstage, waiting for the principal to come; for the audience, waiting for the information, the missing pieces of the story that explain the suggestive tentativeness, the endless awkwardness. Jon Tracy's stage direction emphasizes the start-stop manner of the meeting, punctuated with outbursts and slow burns. 

Jamie Jones has the better of it. Corryn is more than a little wayward and assertive, can change moods on a dime, attacking Heather verbally one minute while asking her the next to call her "Corryn." (Besides her institutional role, which explains some of her holding in, Heather is nursing "issues" of her own, but that's not revealed till later.) Her (often unexpected) reactions to Heather's explanations of what happened at school—and the reactions Corryn gets out of Heather—are the motor of the play, giving rise to whatever overall conclusions the audience cares to draw from this encounter. 

* * * 

In the press materials for the Cutting Ball production of 'Ubu Roi,' amid many assertions about the avant-garde in European theater since 'Ubu' 's advent onstage in 1896, was an interesting reminder that what, in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, was known as "the Problem Play," was considered shocking, itself part of the avant-garde, at least for a time. The origins of the Problem Play—thematically often about prostitution, marriage across class and caste, sexually transmitted disease—go back to the "Well-Wrought" three-to-five act plays of the Parisian playwrights who defined a great deal of the form of modern theater, film, television ... the spectacle of our "Society of the Spectacle," as Guy Debord dubbed it 45 years ago. 

Practically all the "structural" advice to would-be screenwriters found in the plethora of publications, from John Howard Lawson's (with his Central Conflict Theory) to those of Syd Field ("Plot Points"), came from these highly successful—and rather banal—commercial plays, from "ärcs" and the dominance of plot over the story it "structured"—or became confused with. Complications and misunderstandings became as important as, or more so, than the story itself. 

The Problem Plays of their time—with the exception of a few that, dramaturgically, went far beyond the genre, like those of Ibsen or Shaw—seem hopelessly dated now. (A delicious satire of the Problem Play from 1913, "Behind the Beyond," by Stephen Leacock, the Canadian humorist who was the favorite of Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Robert Benchley and the New Yorker writers of the 20s, is online—with original illustrations—at: ) Alain Resnais made a film of Henri Bernstein's boulevard piece of 1929, which has some of the same features, 'Melo,' in 1986, which brilliantly brought out in a contemporary way the form's "lost" theatrical methods of revealing its twists and turns, the misunderstandings its characters have with one another—its special, inclusive relation with its audience as the catalyst of its theatricality—in contrast to the far-fetched yet banal melodrama of its story, which begged the question poet and critic Theophile Gautier asked about the plays of the first great "Well-Wrought" playwright, Eugene Scribe, in the mid-19th century: "[How can] an author without poetry, lyricism, style, philosophy, truth or naturalism ... be the most successful playwright of his epoch ... ?" 

'Gidion's Knot' plays a little with the contemporary knock-off of the Problem Play, getting a little of something vaguely resembling black humor at one point, some second-hand pathos at another ... But it doesn't fulfill what at times seems to be its real gambit, displaying the way these awkward (and often institutional) melodramas are themselves plotted out, both in real life and onstage. For both entertainment value and to "show" the audience, bring them into the action rather than just give them information to either emote over or pass judgment on, Johns (and the director) should've emphasized more the ongoing theatrical devices, the delays, the misunderstandings, the reversals, play up what's revealed to the audience versus concealed to the characters (and vice versa—the reading of the scandalous story, after a long delay, brings out its banality to no particular end—better it remained unread, left up to the audience's imagination). 

* * * 

Eugene O'Neill once said, "The actors of my generation understand my plays, but can't act them. The actors of my father's generation never could've understood my plays—but they could've acted them like hell!" 

After seeing Cutting Ball's 'Ubu Roi,' I woke up from a dream where Peter Lorre was playing Ubu—perfect, with the big eyes, the knowing look of being cast into opprobrium ... 

'Ubu' is usually considered to be the first truly modern avant-garde play staged, the predecessor of the post-War "Theatre of the Absurd" as well as of the various avant-garde styles which came in between, its puerile protagonist—wildly foulmouthed, assassinating the King of Poland by kicking him to death, then brandishing a toilet brush as scepter and throwing all and sundry into the Disembraining Machine so he can glom onto their money—the prototypical anti-hero of modernity ... 

Cutting Ball's contemporary version, directed by Yury Urnov, graduate of that venerable Moscow academy of theatricality, GITIS, remakes Ubu and his equally monstrous wife (who serves as a kind of Greek chorus, lamenting his brutal gaucheries in equally profane tones) into a wealthy American couple, determined to get their way, Jarry's intricate burlesques of drama through the ages (it's not just a send-up of 'Macbeth' or what one lamentable essay, included with press materials, would have it, the work of a rebellious, scatological child who never grew up) is replaced by a succession of theater games, mostly centered around food (the set's a high-tech kitchen, the apotheosis—battle between the Whole Polish army and the tsar's Imperial forces—a free-for-all food fight)—and comes to resemble not much more, theatricality speaking, than a kind of preschool version of Saturday Night Live for adults. (As a seasoned professional director remarked to me after the show, ït was amusing in parts, but not the play I remember reading!") 

The reduction of Ubu to insipidity is the reverse of Jarry's intention, his protest against middle class mores by elevating the contradictions of what's taboo with the pious nonsense that's said about it to the level of sublime—and tragically sublime—nonsense, his own form of black humor. "Cliches are the armature of the Absolute." 

What Jarry meant Ubu to be like is clear enough, not only from the play itself, despite sketchy descriptions of its only two performances, but his subsequent assuming of the Ubu persona—with its precedence in political caricature, popular puppet theater and Celtic folk culture (Jarry and his influential predecessor, forerunner of modern theater, Villiers de L'Ísle-Adam, both Breton, both featured a similar buffoonish creature, Jarry's from puppet theater, Villers' a mannequin)—more than adequately described by his stunned and admiring contemporaries. (Andre Gide features Jarry in both novels and his published journals, acting out his Ubu role). 

"The last sublime debauchee of the Renaissance," Apollinaire dubbed Jarry. There's no trace of Ubu leading civilization on to an absurd apocalypse in the Cutting Ball production. Worse, there's barely a hint of the Grotesque—what V. S. Meyerhold called "the triumph of Form over Content," visible in Punch and Judy shows as well as in 'Tales of Hoffmann,' a bulwark against bathos, as Italian poet Adriano Spatola had it, or what Meyerhold's student Eisenstein's disciples called Eccentrism, or Roland Barthes The Obtuse, beyond the symbolic as well as the denotative ... Just more or less random games, attached to images from the media ... 

Contemporary problem plays or parodies of the sources of information about the problems ... Watching audiences at productions like these is, in some ways, like watching someone watch the news on TV, as information gets absorbed and a bunch of discrete reactions play across their face, not exactly a collective audience experience, frowning or tittering or alternating between the two. What's missing is theatricality, in the sense of a self-aware theater, displaying its means of representation, its styles, its tricks, including the audience in its actions as its other half. 

Midway through 'Gidion's Knot' it occurred to me that 60 years before, in his anti-plays which mercilessly burlesqued manners, education, language itself, Ionesco (and the other "Absurdists," perhaps the first to openly bring the techniques of the avant-gardes—surrealism's dissociations and bare, post-apocalyptic scenic design, for example—into modern commercial theaters, by eschewing doctrinaire avant-gardism) both saved time and increased stylization, the power of theatricality to panoramically show the contradictions of a whole society, not just a domestic household ... 

But with too many productions, as with these two seemingly different ones, stylization, theatricality's been suppressed or lost. Confronted with the same means, the same images, played straight or meant as parody, as the media presents us, what's onstage is something less challenging than just meant, perhaps unwillingly, for consumption. 

'Gidion's Knot' Tuesday through Sunday through , various times (including matinees) at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (near Shattuck). 843-4822, $32-$50, $20 rush tickets a half hpur before curtain; 

'Ubu Roi' Thursdays-Sundays, various times (including matinees) through March 9, Exit Theater on Taylor, 277 Taylor (three blocks off Market, near Powell BART), Downtown San Francisco. $15-$30.