Sit, Ubu, Sit! Bad King! Ruff!

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Oliver Conant in Ubu mode. Photos by John Quilty.
Oliver Conant in Ubu mode. Photos by John Quilty.

The New York-based actor Oliver Conant is performing the role of Pere Ubu in the rollicking and radicalizing play Ubu in Chains. Originally written by proto-absurdist playwright Alfred Jarry, it now features a brilliant and provocative new translation and direction by the legendary Barbara Vann of Off-Off-Broadway’s long-running and highly admired Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble.

In this Ubu, the titular tyrant is as terrible a tyke as ever, torturing those around him when he decides that he ought to become a slave — thus forcing the state to take care of him. If that sounds a little bit like a satire on, among things, class, that’s because it is; Jarry (and Vann) love nothing more than to skewer greed, lust for power and stupidity as encapsulated in the unbelievable Ubu.

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In addition to Conant, the production (running through June 28) features Amie Amis, Bill Blechingburg, John Cencio Burgos, Dan Burkarth, Oliver Conant, David Elyha, Beth Griffith, Richard Gross, Richard Keyser, Cameron McIntosh, Lynda Rodolitz and Elizabeth Wine. For tickets and schedule of remaining performances, go to www.medicineshow.org or call 212-262-4216.

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When Conant informed The Clyde Fitch Report that he was unavailable for interviews, he did allow that were he so inclined, Pere Ubu himself might grant us a Q&A. We became a slave to the idea.

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And now, 5 questions Pere Ubu has never been asked:

Beth Griffith, Lynda Rodolitz, Amie Amis
Beth Griffith, Lynda Rodolitz, Amie Amis.

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your rule?
Ha! Ha! Ha! Question? Perceptive? Better say that when I ruled, “here there is no why!” Oh to be sure, I remember, dimly, a Polish magistrate who asked how, if he was not to be paid, he was supposed to live? I told him he could profit from those he condemned to death. “Horror!” “Scandal!” he cried, just before he and all the other judges were killed at my orders. Then there was the counselor who asked how my new triple taxes were going…my tax on marriage…Oh! And that Captain Garbage, I suppose he had a point when he asked if I did not see that my people awaited my largesse upon my enthronement. Yes, that was perceptive. But there was never any prospect of distributing money, oh no. No, no, no.

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your rule?
Well Mere Ubu wondered if I wasn’t too fat to be a slave — being a slave, by the way, is my new way to rule. Ubu in chains, slave and I no longer give orders. (They’ll obey me better that way.) All the better for a fat lot of work, as I told the dumb bitch. But what is it with you and “questions”? If there were questions, they were lost with the infinity of people I massacred. You try to ask a question after you’ve been de-brained! We had them in public, you know, on Sundays, on a hill, in the suburbs, with coconut salesmen and wooden horses around…

So, you put yourself into exile from the Polish throne in order to become a slave that the state will take care of. What triggered your decision and do you regret it yet?
Ah, that. Well, what with that troublesome adolescent Buggerlax, always vowing vengeance for my murder of his royal father, the Czar who kept frightening my Finance Stallion, the enemy who — despite my orders to the contrary! — kept shooting at our most precious person, not to mention that damned bear, who kept tearing up our foot soldiers, even though we were talking Latin to him from the top of our rock — well, in the end it didn’t seem worth the candle, by my green candle! I mean, what’s the point wearing a crown if you’re only going to be covered with blows? It’s only when I returned to Republican France that I realized how rotten with the intoxicating delusion of liberty everyone was, and how deeply everyone secretly yearns for the security of being a slave, and secretly longs for a master, that I saw my new path to power. Really, it’s no different from Foucault’s realization when he met all those radical students in ’68, and told them: “I can see you are all looking for a master.”

Cameron McIntosh​, Conant, Richard Keyser, John Burgos.
Cameron McIntosh​, Oliver Conant, Richard Keyser, John Burgos.

Do you see yourself in other tyrants or thugs active since your time?
Horneygutweiner, but you have an odd way of talking — just exactly what do you mean by “your time”? However, yes, many, many, far too many to list them all, some of them gentlemen of the Left, others of the Right, Fascists, Communists, Baathists, Islamists, all of them bearing the mark of Ubu…take the Ceauescus, Pere and Mere, in their Palace — pure Ubu! Or consider that jolly gutbucket Pablo Escobar, turning himself in to prison and then running the place with his own armies inside and out, bringing in prostitutes for the prisoners, taking vacations…

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You have been no stranger to controversy ever since your first appearance in public at the Theatre de L’Oevre in 1895, where 15 minutes of shouting and cheering broke out after you “said the word.” Care to comment on any recent controversies — for example, the protest by over 200 American writers of PEN’s award to Charlie Hebdo?
Oh, you know, I no longer want to utter “the word.” It earned me too much unpleasantness! But I thoroughly approved of the action of these American writers. It seems to me they are well on their way to making themselves good little slaves.

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Let’s say you were born a slave — thus taken care of by the state and never a king — but always wanted, in fact, to be a king. How would you have made that a reality?
Hmmm. You know, I have heard that the Sultan, before kicking me out of his empire, told his Vizier that I was his brother, captured long ago by French pirates, so maybe I was a slave — before, that is, I decided to become one! However, I think I was originally a professor of physics with classroom management problems. Does that answer your question?