Despot-centric play in tune with today’s election, politics

This weekend, Philaletheis will present “Ubu Rex,” a French play from the late 1800s that explores themes of political despotism. Courtesy of James J. Conway/Strange Flowers
This weekend, Philaletheis will present “Ubu Rex,” a French play from the late 1800s that explores themes of political despotism. Courtesy of James J. Conway/Strange Flowers
This weekend, Philaletheis will present “Ubu Rex,” a French play from the late 1800s that explores themes of political despotism. Courtesy of James J. Conway/Strange Flowers

This weekend in the Susan Stein Shiva Theater, The Philaletheis Society (lovingly referred to as Phil) presents: “Ubu Rex.” Phil is one of the many student theater organizations on campus that produces theatrical events, including full-length productions like this one, throughout the year.

Director Julian Corbett ’19 detailed the most important plot points by saying, “‘Ubu Rex’ is the story of a vulgar, greedy, self-obsessed, hate-spewing, cowardly officer in the Polish army whose wife convinces him to kill the King of Poland and seize the throne. Once he’s king, Ubu kills the nobles to seize their property, kills the judges because he doesn’t like their rulings and kills the economists because they criticize his tax plan.”

At the time of its original premiere in the late 1800s, “Ubu Rex” elicited in audiences many visceral reactions which were due largely in part to the play’s ill-received profanity and sacrilegious themes. Corbett explained, “It starts with the word ‘Shittr!,’ and when the play premiered in 1896 there was a riot immediately after the first line.”

Corbett continued, “People called [playwright Alfred] Jarry’s play immoral, blasphemous, seditious, anarchistic—but it was also the start of a new era in the theater and in art. Jarry is really trying to challenge his audience, to show them a part of human nature that they would probably much rather ignore.”

Jarry’s work still remains relevant even 120 years after its first production. The completely absurd and satirical nature of this play are only parts of its great success as a text. The power of “Ubu Rex” also lies in the show’s ability to start up conversations relevant to the current political moment.

Corbett explained that he chose to direct this play because he was struck by its freshness. He commented, “Right now we find ourselves dominated by a multiplicity of Ubus. Obviously the most prominent is Donald Trump—he’s the reason I thought we had to perform this piece right now…we’re greatly informed by his persona and by his public image, but the fact is that there are Ubus in every part of our society and our culture.

Corbett continued to explain the cultural relevancy of the show, saying, “From people like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian to someone like Paul LePage, the governor of Maine, we’re obsessed with these people who create their celebrity by maintaining a constant state of anarchy around everything they do. We’re fixated by it, and as a result we give tremendous power to these people who are pretty much only good at talking about themselves and who do it in the most destructive manner possible. So that’s what I wanted to explore with Ubu: the question of power and how it intersects with a strong personality.”

Corbett’s responsibility to this show did not end with an exploration of these themes. Another vital aspect of producing a student theater show is putting together a production team. One position to be filled is that of a set designer. Elianna Scheide ’20 was chosen to take the lead on transposing words from a page into an informative set.

Scheide delved into part of her artistic vision, saying, “I wanted to try and emphasize the childlike qualities of the show—in particular, the absurdity and vulgarity of the show reminded me of a young child’s tantrum.”

Scheide continued, “For the shape of the set, this comes across in the box-and-crate-like nature of the unit pieces, which are meant to emulate a play that you might have put on in your backyard in the summer with whatever boxes you had lying around for the set … I wanted the set to look two dimensional and flat, as is a black and white cartoon or an image from a story book.”

Settling on a specific vision for a show is only one of the many challenges a cast and crew face as they create the world of the play. Scheide explained, “One of the challenges of working on this show has been…making adjustments to what is realistic and what I would like to do. Theater is a collaborative process and there is always a back-and-forth dialogue between the artistic vision, practicality and needs of the show. Time is also a difficult factor. We only had a few days to build the set, and I am coming to ‘Ubu’ off of two other shows.”

Scheide is a fitting example of the usual Vassar theater-maker in that she has simultaneous commitments to numerous productions on campus. It is not uncommon for actors and members of production teams alike to be involved with multiple shows at once, and these responsibilities tend to only intensify over the course of the semester in direct correlation with academic schedules and other co-curricular commitments.

The beauty of student theatre at Vassar is that, for example, it is not unusual for a newly-initiated person to be chosen for an important design position. The student-run nature of these orgs allows for an expansive and inclusive atmosphere for students of varying levels of involvement and experience.

Scheide explained, “It allows for unlimited creativity and a chance to test our organizational, design and production skills … Student theater has allowed me to truly design and lead my peers as a set designer and in the other capacities in which I have served.”

As stressful as the high-stakes nature of putting on a show may be, “Ubu Rex” actress Lexi Karas ’17 recalled a highlight and redeeming part of the often rigorous rehearsal process: “One of my favorite parts of this rehearsal process has been the constant laughter. This play is absurdly comedic in the best of ways. During the rehearsal process, our cast has been filled with energy and a willingness to take acting risks, often with the most hilarious results.”

In anticipation of performing for a live audience at long last, Karas shared, “I’m very excited…comedies are so dependent on the audience’s energy and laughter. I’m excited to feed off the audience and to see which parts of the show make the audience laugh the most.”

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