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Theater Review: The Irresistible Rise of Big Daddy Ubu

5 Sep

The Irresistible Rise of Big Daddy Ubu, a Nimbus theater production which opened this weekend at the Theater Garage, throws a whole lot of elements into the mix. I’m almost certainly missing a few, but here’s a laundry list: Brecht, Jarry, the Chicago mafia, penis jokes, Monty Python, various pop culture icons including Enya, Guy Noir, Donald Rumsfeld, free market politics, corporate greed & aggression, National Public Radio, organic vegetable references, buffoonery, meta-theatrical devices, and lots and lots of text. It is then perhaps strange that, upon the culmination of all this, it felt as though they hadn’t pushed it far enough. Buoyed by the inspired and present performance of Mark Rehani as Dogsburough, a brilliantly executed take on the detective & lawyer Casey (Scot Moore), and a solid performance from Joe Herman in the title role, the play does manage to get from beginning to end fairly intact, although I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were stuck somewhere between second and third gear most of the time.

To reduce the plot down to its basic elements, Big Daddy Ubu is a big fat gangster who shoots, intimidates, and farts his way through a corrupt Chicago food industry, ultimately putting his ill-used conscience on trial & attempting to murder his even fatter wife along the way. It’s a grotesque comedy that seeks to expose the big-wigs for who they really are and, I suspect, make a basic mockery of corporate industry that threatens to monopolize even our grocery stores. The trouble is that the composition almost immediately overwhelms the whole, and the characters, while occasionally coming into focus, are burdened with so much expository dialogue that we never really get a sense of why any of it matters. The pop culture jokes mostly fall flat, either because they’re three or four years old, or because they just don’t really fit in with the rest of the action (although there is an Enya joke that I very much appreciated.)

Full review after the jump

It’s easy to sit back and critique, and there’s enough here to recommend that you take a look. Near the end of the program, Nimbus includes a section which calls for conversation, an exploration of the exchange between audience & the work presented on stage. Taking that challenge, I’d like to start a conversation regarding the (smaller) Twin Cities theater community. There is clearly abundant talent among the ranks, and we all understand that putting on a fully realized production is no small task. It takes weeks of rehearsal, thousands of dollars mostly raised from private individuals, and a huge commitment from a team of actors, designers, and creative minds to even get the show onto a stage. Given so much energy and effort, why is it so difficult to end up with a product that transcends the ordinary? I don’t think it makes me overly optimistic to hope & expect for something new, something visionary, a piece that teaches me about the craft, every time I attend a piece of Twin Cities theater. I have no desire to be a cynic – I understand the challenges at hand. But I also refuse to accept mediocre theater as the status quo. There are too many theater degrees (at a cost of what, $20,000 in tuition each?), too many clear & present issues to tackle, and frankly, too much at stake for so many shows to grind it out from beginning to finish, achieving adequacy but rarely transcending or challenging the medium in which they operate.

Somewhere in the middle of Big Daddy Ubu, Ubu is on the floor having pummeled the character who plays his conscience into a dizzy mess. He holds out his hand to be helped up by his wife. They are both immensely fat, and yet, she takes his hand and pulls him up with no effort what-so-ever, and the play goes on. It was in that moment that I lost the belief that I was watching Ubu in this world. I was instead watching a group of actors gamely work their way through a somewhat over-wordy adaptation of Alfred Jarry, and that was that.

Is it acceptable to want more? Go see it, and decide for yourself.

The Irresistible Rise of Big Daddy Ubu plays at the Minneapolis Theater Garage, September 5-28. For tickets, call 651-229-3122 or www.nimbustheatre.com

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