When Declan Donnellan's take-as-many-liberties-as-you-dare adaptation of Alfred Jarry's 1896 take-as-many-iconoclastic-strikes-as-you-can Ubu Roi begins, a boy (Sylvain Levitte) lies on a muted-color sofa nuzzling his video camera.
Before long he rises and starts examining through the camera's eye the tasteful apartment he shares with his well-dressed father (Christophe Grégoire) and mother (Camille Cayol) as they prepare to greet their equally well-dressed guests (Vincent de Bouard, Cecile Leterme, Xavier Bolffier). Exiting the living room, which is what the audience sees, he snoops through other rooms, which the audience views only as projections on the muted-color upstage wall.
Returning to the living room (which Donnellan's longtime set designer Nick Ormerod has contrived to be ultra-soothing), the young boy lies on the sofa again. But then, as his parents chat quietly to themselves, he suddenly jolts up. As he does, Pascal Noel's pleasant lighting shifts ominously, and all three figures begin compulsively gyrating. Then, just as unexpectedly as they convulsed, the lights shift again and the earlier understated cheer is restored -- until again the mood change occurs and so on for several minutes.
And with this happening, the audience at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre is thrust into Donnellan's radical take on Jarry's play. The boy's father becomes Jarry's Pa Ubu, his mother becomes Jarry's Ma Ubu and the boy himself becomes the Ubus' son, Bougrelas.
Though the abrupt changes of tone are initially jarring, it doesn't take long for the audience to understand that the ensuing transitions from a subdued dinner party to the frenetic behavior of despots at their most destructive -- and then from time to time back again -- is a bored adolescent's rebellious fantasy. He's deriving enjoyment and maybe even a certain fright from projecting -- as it were -- the uncivilized underpinnings he fears and wishes in his ostensibly normal parents. (There are instances here reminiscent of Yazmina Reza's God of Carnage.)
Cheek by Jowl artistic director Donnellan's reason for giving Ubu Roi this drastic treatment is two-fold. Firstly, it looks as if he was taken with the idea of using Jarry's work to make a trenchant statement about the distrait idylls of youth. Secondly, he seems intent on locating a way to restore the shock value at which Jarry initially aimed with such determination to rout the middle class from their comforts.
He succeeds -- and doesn't -- in varying degrees. Although a middle-aged couple in my row left within a half hour or so, the audience remained more than politely attentive. No one spoke back when Grégoire as Pa Ubu left the stage in search of a audience member who admitted to being a financier. No one replied when he asked if anyone would vote for him, even in a primary. (I was tempted to say I'd vote for him before I'd vote for Donald Trump.)
The search for a financier followed a sequence in which Pa Ubu had Ma Ubu round up authority personages for extinction. When brought in three at a time (Bouard, Leterme, Bolffier portrayed them all), they were covered, heads first, with a capacious bag and led off stage where grinding and crunching sounds commenced.
These go-rounds were among several that Donnellan conjured up to amuse the patrons. It has to be said, however, that he hasn't thought up enough to justify the intermissionless one-hour-50-minute duration. Eventually, what began as an usually creative directorial enterprise started to pall. It also has to be said, however, that Donnellan is sufficiently clever to keep his upended Ubu Roi from outstaying its welcome.
While exiting, I overheard one patron explaining to her friends that the boy's activity was an Oedipal complex manifestation. It's a respectable theory. There was a segment where the boy glided with his mother over the now littered living-room floor to Charles Trenet's classic recording of "La Mer." (The original music piped in was by Davy Sladek and Paddy Cunneen.) But since throughout the rest of the brazen action, both father and mother were equally mad, it hardly seems a case of the boy's killing off the former to ally with the latter.
To say that the cast members throw themselves into the fracas whole-heartedly is an understatement. They perform the required dancing on tables, trashing the room, soiling the walls and other assorted physical abuse with absolutely no restraints. What actors won't do for their art never ceases to amaze.
The production is a Cheek by Jowl co-production with Les Gémeaux-Scene National de Sceaux, Paris, The Barbican, London and La Comédie de Bethume-Centre Dramatique du Nord-Pas-de-Calais and is performed by the intrepid troupers in French with supertitles.