The bizarre, diminutive French playwright Alfred Jarry—the subject of Elizabeth Swados’s new musical extravaganza Jabu—lived in a half-story garret with tiny furniture and a huge stone phallus (a miniature, he once quipped, of his own). Writer-composer-director Swados takes her inspiration from Jarry’s perversely theatrical and pathologically self-aggrandizing worldview.
Jabu alternates between the bad-boy prodigy’s life and scenes from Ubu Roi, his 1896 scatological, history-making Macbeth parody. Occasionally, Swados intersperses contemporary vignettes that demonstrate Jarry’s ongoing cultural legacy.
Marshaling her motley-clad, multi-talented legion of actors (18 in all), Swados fashions exuberant tableaux with catchy modernist tunes and vaudeville shtick. In one grotesquely funny production number, King Ubu sings in celebration of his murderous “debraining machine” while annihilating the nobles en masse.
What works best in this Jarry jumble is the staging of Ubu, a wickedly raunchy romp in whiteface and long johns. Matt Wilson’s manically robotic portrayal of Jarry illuminates Ubu‘s anarchic vision, but the biographical story line falters with the artist’s slow decline into absinthe, delusion, and death.
Leather-clad performance artists smearing shit on themselves may owe a debt to Jarry. But when Ubu drawls out Bushisms, you feel that the prodigiously inventive Swados is stretching the connection—and wasting her prodigiously inventive gifts on an easy target.