Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Reviews: UBU ROI - Absurdist and Surrealist Theatre at its Finest


Continuing its mission to boldly re-envision classical drama, Classical Theatre Company is presenting Alfred Jarry's UBU ROI. The 1896 play is a precursor of the Theatre of the Absurd and Surrealism, but certainly opened the doors for the development of those genres of theatre.

The play tells the tale of the disgusting and childlike Father Ubu. Like William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Mother Ubu persuades Father Ubu to murder King Wenceslas and usurp his throne. With the help of Captain Bordure, the Ubus succeed in their plot. The king's son, Buggerlass, and wife, Queen Rosamund, escape and flee to a nearby cave. In the cave, the queen suddenly dies. The ghosts of Buggerlass' family, including the king and queen, visit him and urge him to avenge his father's murder, much like the ghost in HAMLET. The ghosts arm Buggerlass with a sword and send him to complete his mission.

Translated, adapted, and directed by Philip Hays, the show is weirdly grotesque and miraculously captivating. In his Director's note, Philip Hays explains that he started with a word for word translation, but the version we see has been "cut, rearranged, rewritten, and amended with scenes and songs cribbed from Jarry's other Ubu plays, as well as passages of [his] own imagination." Unfamiliar with the original texts, I cannot speak to these changes; however, I can say whatever Philip Hays has chosen to cut, rearrange, and amend works fantastically for creating a show that is discomforting and hilarious all at the same time. His UBU ROI is wildly absurd and surreal in the greatest ways possible. The characters are written and directed to be truly unforgettable and entirely unique. The plot, seemingly a pastiche of lovingly ripped off elements of other classic plays, is in its own way original and has fascinating things to say about our ability to dehumanize our peers when we want something that they possess.

Mark Roberts' Father Ubu is exhilaratingly abhorrent. The man neither understands nor knows anything of the human condition. He is completely wrapped up in himself, seemingly only interested in whatever will please him. Mark Roberts brings frightening life into the man who feels like he knows everything, but is completely out of sync with reality.

As Mother Ubu, Susan Koozin meticulously entices and repulses with magnificent ease. Strutting around the stage with confidence in her appearance and intellect, Susan Koozin's Mother Ubu is superbly manipulative.

Buggerlass, played by Dain Geist, is an entirely grounded character. While pretty much every other member of the cast induces hearty guffaws from the audience because of how they are overacted, zany caricatures of the flaws of humanity, Dain Geist's Buggerlass is the person the audience roots for to become king. In Buggerlass, we see someone who will be able to do the job well and rule with a sound mind.

Carl Masterson's King Wenceslas is played much like Dain Geist's Buggerlass, allowing the audience to understand that there was no utilitarian purpose in killing the king. The Ubu's murder plot was simply to elevate their wealth and status. Carl Masterson's King Wenceslas appears to have been a fair and just ruler, making his untimely murder a tragic waste.

JoVan Jackson interestingly plays Captain Bordure. He appears loyal to a flaw in regards to Father Ubu; however, after Father Ubu gains power, the character is imprisoned. Ultimately, JoVan Jackson's Captain Bordure is betrayed and convincingly sees Father Ubu for the folly of a man he is.

Lorenz Lopez's portrayal of Alfred Jarry throughout the show is a fascinating addition to the production. His opening diatribe is unexpected and made unusual by his pushing a replica of Alfred Jarry's Ubu woodcut figurine around the desk he sits at. He sets up the show and then serves somewhat as a narrator-like device, popping in and out of the actual action of the piece as different characters. Lorenz Lopez's characterization is unnerving and fascinating all at the same time, creating a tangibly awkward vibe for the production that the rest of the cast comfortably inhabits and expands throughout the show.

As the Palcontents, et al., Dylan Godwin, Blair Knowles, and Kalob Martinez are strikingly individualized while being wholly similar to one another. Vacillating between wreaking havoc at the request of Father Ubu, playing the destitute and ruined people of Poland in Father Ubu's wake, and playing the Russians that want to invade Poland and kill Father Ubu, they present characterizations that are so magnanimous that the audience cannot help but be captivated by them every time they are on stage.

In a similar fashion as the Palcontents, Eva Laporte plays Queen Rosamund, et al. Unlike King Wenceslas and Buggerlass, Queen Rsoamund is costumed in a similar fashion as the Palcontents and Father Ubu, allowing the audience to understand that she does not have a foothold in reality. Eva Laporte skillfully portrays Queen Rosamund as an absurdist portrait of weak, abject femininity that is made complete by her sudden death in the cave.

Scenic Design by Ryan McGettigan is as brilliant as it is utterly surprising and impressive. This large, rounded stage is elevated and entirely fills the performance space at Studio 101. It is quite possibly the most intricate and expansive set used in the space to date. The intricacy comes from the fact that almost every square inch of the elevated floor is a trap door that can be used as an entrance or exit for actors as well as props. Every element of Ryan McGettigan's design is an exercise in sheer theatrical brilliance. Kudos must also be given to shop foreman Drew Hoovler for ensuring that the set went from design to a finished and usable product.

Alex Jainchill's lighting design is impressive as well. The foot lights at the base of the set are used to create fascinating shadows on the exposed bare brick walls. Then colors are mixed and used to indicate location and mood with practiced and perfected aptitude. For the Ubu house the colors are a mixing of greens and pinks, creating an unrealistic palette of color splashes; however, before Ubu becomes king, the palace is lit realistically with a nice pattern of red, white, and blue across the back wall. Alex Jainchill's Lighting Design shows an understanding of the show thematically and makes those themes more accessible to the audience through lights that affect the subconscious and deepen our understanding of the characters, mood, and tone of the show.

Costume Designs by Macy Perrone are at once spectacular and delightfully trashy. A majority of the cast is wearing long johns and other undergarments that are decorated in a way that is reminiscent of Tim Burton's awkward and unique vision. The make-up design is also reminiscent of Tim Burton's work. Moreover, every costume is flawed with tears, frays, or both. The looks and designs are impressive, captivating, and wholly telling of whom each character is before the cast has a chance to open their mouths.

Lucas Gorham has composed original, chaotic music and adapted familiar themes through changing keys and tempos to create an underscore that is frenetic and disturbing. All of this adds to the absurdity and discomforting nature of the piece.

Classical Theatre Company's production of UBU ROI is unlike anything that you'll currently see playing in Houston. It is also unlike anything you might see for quite some time. Theatre of the Absurd and Surrealist theatre are not easy feats to pull off, but Philip Hays, his cast, and his crew have put together a wonderfully provocative and exciting night of Absurdist and Surrealist theatre that is sure to leave audiences mentally revisiting the production over and over. This is not to say that it is baffling, even though it may at times feel that way. It is to say that Alfred Jarry and Philip Hays have put a lot of meat into the show for you to enjoy and slowly digest.

Classical Theatre Company's UBU ROI runs at Studio 101 at 1824 Spring Street, Houston through February 3, 2013. For more information and tickets, please visit or call (713) 963 - 9665.

Photos by Pin Lim. Courtesy of Classical Theatre Company.

Susan Koozin, Mark Roberts, JoVan Jackson, Blair Knowles, Kalob Martinez, Eva Laporte, Dylan Godwin

JoVan Jackson, Susan Koozin

Dylan Godwin, Mark Roberts

Eva Laporte, Mark Roberts, Blair Knowles, Dylan Godwin

Related Articles View More Houston Stories

Featured on Stage Door

Shoutouts, Classes & More

From This Author David Clarke