BWW Reviews: A Surreal JARRY INSIDE OUT at Spooky Action Theater
For well over one hundred years avant-garde writer Alfred Jarry has set the gold standard for profanity, riotous provocation and just plain weirdness. Jarry's signature work, the satiric Ubu Roi, with its buffoonish title character running around in long-johns and a queen who seasons her dishes with a toilet brush, has attracted enterprising young theatre companies the world over and inspired no end of theatrical mayhem. His legendary passion for absinthe (whose active ingredient bears a striking chemical resemblance to THC) and his eccentric habits remain legendary, right down to his constant monotone speech-a fashion that might not seem out of place on your iPad, but would likely creep you out over drinks.
Jarry is also famous for creating the pseudo-field of Pataphysics, a "science of imaginary solutions" that is pointless to define and which seems to function more as a means of opening the mind to greater aesthetic possibilities. Given the tremendous influence Jarry continues to have on artists to this day it's natural for someone to write a play inspired by his life and career-and to stage it in a mode appropriate to its subject. Richard Heinrich of Spooky Action Theater has taken on this heady task, and with Jarry Inside Out offers us an evening that is likely to leave some of us exhilarated; be advised that others however, who remain uninitiated into the mysteries of Pataphysics, might leave simply exhausted.
As the play opens we find Jarry clinically dead -- his body already draped over with a sheet. But because Jarry envisioned death as merely "the gateway to an endless adventure," the action naturally begins where Jarry ends and we are treated to a dizzyingly random collage of events and fictions.
The set and seating design for Jarry are propitious - designer Giorgos Tsappas has set the audience at an angle, and created a set resembling the inside of Jarry's brain - a gelatinous mass of grey matter with nooks and crannies galore. Director Catherine Tripp and her cast have had great fun inventing ways for characters and props to materialize, with absinthe bottles emerging seemingly from nowhere and a stuffed owl suddenly overhead. Costumer Erik Reagan Teague, inspired by Jarry's famous sketch of the morbidly obese Ubu, has decked out the men in long-johns with formal touches - a tuxedo shirt for Jarry here, a vest for Oscar Wilde there-while the women alternate primarily between a sluttish tutu/garter ensemble and nun's habits.
Jarry, like many of his generation, had a special fascination with puppetry and Matthew McGee has created a striking set of hand-helds that is a highlight of the show. Brian S. Allard has managed to capture the many moods of the play and its central character, accented nicely by David Crandall's sound design (his choice of pre-show and intermission music is especially welcome).
Leading the cast is Ryan Sellers as Jarry, whose manic and contradictory behavior is on full display here. We see him lighting a cigarette with a pistol, visualising and cranking out steamy novelettes for quick cash, etc. - but Sellers also gives us vivid renditions of King Ubu as well as Alaodine, another anti-heroic character of Jarry's device. Carla Briscoe alternates, fittingly, between Madame Rachilde (Jarry's stone-cold sober literary agent) and Madam Ubu, whose cartoonish infidelities end-where else?-down the toilet. Other fine performances here include Ian LeValley (as Dr. Saltas, among others) and Eva Wilhelm, whose many appearances include a striking "living anatomy" right out of Dr. Grey's old book (not the TV series). The entire cast is kept busy, however, with nearly everyone playing at least six distinct roles.
With its bewildering mixture of biographical sketches and excerpts from Jarry's work, and with each member of the cast taking on numerous roles not mentioned in the program, Spooky Action Theater's Jarry Inside Out will be rough going for traditional theatre audiences, but a joy for those who crave a completely untethered theatrical experience. Visually the costumes tend to blend together, to the point where it's sometimes hard to tell one person from the next; only the most striking of costume changes will register a true change in character. Then again, this may be part of the plan to disorient the viewer and lead her to create whatever associations seem appropriate in the moment. Patience, too, is required for the overlong first act (at one and a half hours, it could do with some serious edits) but is rewarded richly in Act 2 with a combination of puppetry and a gloriously gross staging of one of the most notorious scenes from the Ubu cycle (hint: if you like your potty humor, the more potty the better).
Audiences not familiar with Jarry's life and career would do well to consult Wikipedia (at the very least) for a biography and an introduction to Pataphysics before attending. The articles might not make the action of Jarry Inside Out any more comprehensible in the conventional sense, but it will at least enable them to suspend their judgement and let the sound and fury come at them, seemingly at random, to be resolved in their heads as they please.
Running Time: 2 ½ hours, with one intermission
Jarry Inside Out runs May 28- June 21 at Spooky Action Theater J at 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC (at the corner of 16th and S Sts.) There is free parking for Spooky Action patrons behind the Scottish Rite temple, kitty-corner across the street from the theatre. Tickets are available by calling 202-248-0301 or by logging into https://spookyaction.secure.force.com/ticket .