‘Ubu the King,’ a raunchy play from 1896, revived in Culver City
Bob Turton, Chas Harvey, and Dora Kiss. | Photo by Ashley Randall

CULVER CITY, Calif. — And now for something completely different: Inspired anarchic insanity obscenely reigns supreme at Actors’ Gang.

Upon returning from Tahiti and Pitcairn Island I was glad I hadn’t missed The Actors’ Gang 40th anniversary production of Ubu the King, which has been extended through Dec. 3. Especially as this veteran reviewer has never seen anything quite like this performed on a live stage before. The playbill includes credits for, and I quote, “fartists” (cast members Adam Dugas and Guebri Van Over hold that honor). And before the proverbial curtain lifts a bilingual woman announces house rules, such as where emergency exits are located (presumably for faint of heart ticket buyers), and warns audience members against committing acts of “terrorism,” like talking during the show.

The latter admonitions may reference the outraged disruptions that punk-tuated the world premiere of Ubu Roi (for readers who don’t parlez vous, “roi” is French for “king”). The ensuing 90-minutes of merry madcap mayhem on the boards of The Actors’ Gang’s Culver City theater clearly reveal what triggered Belle Époque Parisian spectators to riot in 1896 and what led to the subsequent banning of symbolist Alfred Jarry’s surreal satire.

A star of sorts was born after that contentious premiere—the 23-year-old playwright Alfred Jarry—despite the fact that the outré play was mounted only that once onstage before a live audience during his lifetime. Unsurprisingly, Jarry died young at the age of 34 in 1907.

Ubu the King opens with a premise that’s staged as if the Bard of Avon had dropped some bad Purple Owsley when he penned Macbeth: Ma Ubu (whimsically played as a demented coquettish clown by Gang vet Dora Kiss) eggs Pa Ubu (his Royal Anus is portrayed by a fat suit-wearing Chas Harvey) into overthrowing the “rightful” Polish monarch, King Winceslas (Scott Harris, another Gang stalwart in a multiple role, as His Majesty doesn’t stick around too long). Incited by his wife, the power hungry Ubu plots his palace putsch.

Let the Gang’s games begin!

A series of wild antics are unleashed on a mostly bare stage featuring two platforms with curtains (set design by Mit Snibbar, constructed by Brian Finney) whereupon the large cast is embroiled in relentless murderous power struggles. Jarry’s jarring one-acter unspools in the best (worst?) tradition of the Theater of the Absurd. Fourth wall and proscenium arch be damned, the Gang’s thespians romp around their theater not unlike lunatics running the proverbial asylum. Tickets to the Ivy Substation’s entire third row are sacrificed so the cast can careen and ricochet across it unimpeded by pesky playgoers’ tootsies. There is method to the madness of this mise-en-scène helmed by the Gang’s artistic director and co-founder, Tim Robbins.

The crazy cavalcade includes: Kooky costumes including a toilet seat as breastplate (designed by Rynn Vogel), kinky hanky-panky (such as Ma Ubu dangling what looks like a Tootsie Roll lollipop between her spread thighs), some semi-nudity, searing live electric guitar music (thrashed by Dave Robbins), Beethoven’s “Ninth” rendered by this human zoo’s kazoos, scatology, rear wall (and psychological!) projections, gigantic and curvy swords, toy soldiers, puppets (perfect for puppet governments, wrought by Mary Eileen O’Donnell and Elif Sezgin), et al.

More fun than humans should be allowed to enjoy (although I’m unsure whether the cast or audience are having the most fun), Ubu the King is a non compos mentis cacophony of Shakespeare, Brecht (untethered to a party line), Dadaism, Ionesco, Cirque du Soleil, vaudeville, anarchy, Jimi Hendrix and so on.

To help make sense of the senseless proceedings, a scantily clad blonde young woman (the mostly deadpan Lisa Cole) periodically bangs on a cymbal, parades across the stage, like a deranged ring girl, bearing placards emblazoned with misspelled stage directions, and also keeps score of the mounting body count on a chalkboard as the fierce faction fights for control and wealth raucously devolve.

Beneath all of Ubu’s bawdy, naughty nihilism, however, are some serious observations about the human condition (or lack of it). Jarry was writing at a time of deep extractive colonialism on the part of the French, as well as the British, Dutch, Belgians, Portuguese, and don’t forget Spain still had its possessions. His “anarchy” could be seen as a warning, and nothing compared to World War I looming in the not so far distance. There is this choice line of dialogue about America: “The land of McDonald’s Happy Meals and unlimited ammunition.”

Luis Quintana, Adam Dugas, Guebri VanOver, Scott Harris, Miroslav Vejnovic, and Stephanie Pinnock. | Photo by Ashley Randall

At one point, as war breaks out, the cast performs like a squad of cheerleaders, probably a reference to a mass media that relentlessly cheers for war. Lest we forget, Tim Robbins was one of our first artists to openly oppose the Iraq War onstage or screen and the conniving deceptions of the Bush-whacking regime echoed by MSM about fairy tale WMDs which never existed and more that conned Americans into backing what quickly became a quagmire and debacle with his daring play Embedded, boldly mounted back in 2003 by the Gang against the prevailing winds of disinformed public opinion.

When Ubu the King was The Actors’ Gang’s first-ever play in 1982, it could have been interpreted as lampooning the Reagan regime. Forty years later, Ubu might be viewed as the doppelgänger for the obviously mentally ill Trump, and Harvey, who sweats throughout the hour-and-a-half revelry, plays his mental monarch with relish. Considering its Eastern European setting, the current production may also be commenting on today’s hideous Ukraine War. Alas, that which Alfred Jarry jibed against 125-plus years ago is still very much with us. But fortunately, so are artistes who rail against and deconstruct the greedy and power-mad among us.

I didn’t quite know what to make of the absurdist Ubu the King when the imaginary curtain rose, but its fanciful lunacy won me over and I ended up quite enjoying this 40th anniversary revival and tribute to one of L.A.’s greatest theaters. The show is not for children or staid viewers who prefer their plays to be tried and true formulas, but is right up the alley of more adventurous theatergoers and those who prefer comedies (albeit one wherein the Marx Brothers appear to be on a bad acid trip).

Ubu the King ​has been extended, with further performances scheduled at 9:00 p.m. on Nov. 26 and Dec. 2 and 3, followed by outdoor after parties in the playhouse’s backyard, at The Actors’ Gang Theater, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City 90232. For info call (310) 838-4264, or go to the company website. With any luck, Ubu will be extended into 2023: I have a feeling we’ll be needing a good laugh in the year to come.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.