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A CurtainUp Review

We are enthusiastic, if not horrified. --Alfred Jarry
Nicola Barber & Kevin T. Moore
Nicola Barber & Kevin T. Moore (Photo: Dixie Sheridan)
If this show were an album cover, it would be The Doors' People are Strange. Jabu is a demented carnival, brash, exuberant, and strange, but also endearing and smart.

This new musical by Elizabeth Swados is the story of Alfred Jarry intercut with a performance of his classic Ubu Roi. Jabu shows just how remarkably similar Paris of the 1890s was to the New York art world of the 1980s, and presents Jarry's life in much the same way it unfolded: maniacally, jerkily, with nonsensical tangents--a fitting tribute.

Jarry and his Ubu plays were a forerunner of Theatre of the Absurd. Staged in 1896, he scandalized Parisian audiences with scatological references and crude name-calling. (In fact, the first song in Jabu is called "Scandal.") A parody of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Ubu Roi introduced Ma and Pa Ubu to the world. Gross, stupid, and foul, the Ubus' plot to take over Poland ("that is to say, nowhere," as Jarry quips) by killing the king and all opposition. Ultimately, they fail, and are driven out of Poland into France. Jarry intended the Ubus as a portrait of modern man, cruel, sanctimonious, and more than a little ludicrous.

The story focuses on three principal figures--Jarry, Pa Ubu, and Madame de Rachilde, Jarry's patron, who acts as a sort of narrator. Jarry (called "this animal, this monkey, this boy" by Madame de Rachilde) was both ingenious and offensive. He cultivated irreverence and disdain and lived the same artistic chaos that characterized his works. Indeed, both he and Ubu speak in a mirrored affectation. Like Strindberg and other of his contemporaries, he was maddened by absinthe and died early. As de Rachilde put it, "his work began to intersect with his hallucinatory life."

The production is breathtakingly original and invigorating . The Bats, the Flea's young resident acting company, are lively and full of contagious bonhomie. Swados' structure and direction play up the feverish swirl of events that was Jarry's life, and show off Ubu in all his rude, bloated glory. She also introduces some characters that had nothing to do with Jarry (Edgar Allen Poe, a pair of black-leather-motorcycle-jacket-clad modern poets and cinema buffs) who offer fitting commentary on his life and art. The songs are simple and forceful; one especially memorable one near the end of the show declares, "Theatre must destroy all the feelings buried deep inside by time." It's all a glorious swirl of costumes and lights and songs and film and superbly funny characters.

Matt Wilson as Jarry and Kevin T. Moore as Ubu are the cast's mainstays, counterbalanced by the calm and collected Danielle Levanas as Madame de Rachilde. Nicola Barber also does a star turn as Ma Ubu. Moore's Ubu is brilliant, abrasive and lewd. He takes pains to parallel Ubu's ridiculous leadership to George W. Bush's, a comparison much appreciated by the Flea's traditionally young audiences.

The only downside to this production is the volume. The music occasionally threatens to drown out the performers. But that's a minor point. Jabu is that rarest of creatures, a funny and urbane new musical. Pa Ubu alone would be worth the very modest price of admission.

Written and directed by Elizabeth Swados
With Nicola Barber, Stephanie Braun, Paula Ehrenberg, Michael Francis, Meredith Holzman, Parrish Hurley, Nicholas Job, Derrick Karg, Jamie King, Danielle Levanas, Taylor Mac, Emily Mattheson, Kevin T. Moore, John Pizzolato, Ana Valle, Hondo Weiss-Richmond, Matt Wells, and Matt Wilson
Musical Direction by Kris Kukul
Set, Video and Puppet Design by Sue Rees
Costume Design by Melissa Schlactmeyer
Lighting Design by Garin Marschall
Marionette Design by Ferico Resterpo
Running time: Two hours with one ten-minute intermission
The Flea Theater, 41 White Street, 212-352-3101; Wednesdays through Fridays at 7 pm and Saturdays at 3pm and 7 pm. Tickets $20 and $25.
02/16/05 through 04/07/05
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on February 25th performance
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