Like gifted children who have invited a new playmate into their attic nursery, the Flea Theater’s resident Bat company is having a merry romp with Alfred Jarry, the enfant terrible of French absurdist theater circles. In her role as their permissive governess, Elizabeth Swados has deconstructed Jarry’s 1896 absurdist farce “Ubu Roi,” grafted bits on to a biographical account of the playwright’s bizarre life and set the whole package to an upbeat score with the jolly, rolling sound of a circus band. Although its playful mood is at odds with the shocking nature of Jarry’s life and art, this pretty piece of stagecraft gives the spirited company something fun to play with.
Jarry is the biggest baby of all in this funhouse treatment of his life, which was brief (he flamed out at 34, dying of tuberculosis and alcoholism) but flamboyant. The darling of bohemian Paris for his surrealist poetry and quasi-scientific theories of art, he achieved notoriety at 23 with “Ubu Roi.” The absurdist comedy scandalized the bourgeoisie with its satiric depiction of a monarch and his wife whose obscene vulgarity and monstrous acts of violence eroded the cultural fabric of their super-civilized nation and plunged its citizens into war.
Their faces caked in clownish white face, Kevin T. Moore and Nicola Barber are suitably grotesque as Ma and Pa Ubu. But although Swados makes a few stabs at finding contemporary references for their coarse antics, the political application is both lame and tame. (George and Laura Bush no more resemble Ma and Pa Ubu than they do the Macbeths, who were Jarry’s literary inspiration.)
As freaks go, Jarry is a far more successful creation. In Matt Wilson’s bad-boy perf, Jarry is very much the neurasthenic genius, a gifted youth who allowed himself to be consumed by his own fabrications. Bug-eyed and trembling with nerves, Wilson adopts Jarry’s most annoying affectations — from the falsetto voice and robotic speech patterns to his use of the imperial plural — to suggest the artist as a holy monster, reviled by conventional society and tormented by his sensitivity.
Lapping up this romantic view of the childish artist, the Bats hang on his every word, translating his stunts as a rallying cry for artistic freedom. (As one song has it, “The theater must change lives.”) Madame de Rachilde, who published Jarry and remained his friend during his spiraling plunge into madness, takes a more realistic view of his self-destructive behavior. In Danielle Levanas’ self-possessed perf, her narrative voice serves as the one clear voice of sanity.
Powdered in white face and decked out in Melissa Schlachtmeyer’s eye-catching costumes, the remainder of the Bats function collectively as a kind of puppet chorus, while applying energy and originality to their multiple roles both in “Ubu Roi” and in the more harrowing drama of Jarry’s life. For all their pretty posturing (they sing, they dance, they do cartwheels), their avant-garde role-playing is more charming than it is threatening — or aesthetically enlightening.
Somehow, though, one doubts the artists of the fin de siecle were ever this cute and wholesome.