Coinciding with the strangest presidential election in decades, Synaesthetic Theatre presented Ubu 2000 last November at NADA Show World, an infamous New York adult entertainment center near Times Square now converted into an Off Off Broadway theatre. The work combined the ideas of the Absurdist play Ubu Roi with the styles of burlesque, freak shows, and the punk movement, in an evening of edgy sketch comedy designed to assault the audience's sensibilities about politicians, racial stereotypes, and the Gap-and-Starbuck's strip-malling of New York. (Ironically, the theatre venue itself is in its own way a casualty of this phenomenon.)
The company's process is to take basic storylines and structures from classics such as The Trial and Frankenstein, then directors, actors, and designers collaborate to create unique works from scratch. They work individually and in small groups to come up with scene ideas and then present them to the whole group for critiquing and melding. This leads to productions that are multilayered, in meanings and theme as well as design. A typical Synaesthetic show combines sound, vocal, and lighting effects; film and video both taped and live, black-and-white and color; outlandish costumes and makeup; even stylized movement and dance.
Ubu 2000 took the idea of environmental immersion a step further, utilizing the former strip club's gloriously tawdry mirror-tiled walls and ceiling and chasing ropelight. On top of that, the work was presented in a sort of reverse in-the-round format, with the audience sitting around cabaret tables situated in a central square, separated from the four surrounding performance platforms by chain-link fencing. This gave the space an urban vacant-lot quality, and played on the sideshow aspect - who was the freak being fenced off, the performers or the audience?
"A lot of the ideas, in particular with the set [designed by Abe Costanza], had to do with making the audience uncomfortable," explains co-director Chris Nichols. Each short scene took place on a different platform, "forcing [the audience] to be active participants in turning and looking and having to stay on their toes as much as the performers did, and not getting too comfy in their seats." Like channel surfing, scenes jumped from commercials for Bathroom Gap and Charm School for Political Wives to reporters covering recently-elected King of New York Pa Ubu's latest "reforms," such as the legalization of prostitution and the removal of teachers and computers from classrooms.
Reinforcing the in-your-face nature of this play was the elaborate and fanciful makeup, by costume designer David Crittenden, which developed from rehearsals. In one of these, actors were asked to come in makeup, and an African-American woman painted her face black. "That was something that I had never thought of using, but it seemed appropriate for this show because of some of the issues we were discussing," says Crittenden, "but I wanted to find a way to allude to the minstrel and the separation of black and white without making it overtly offensive, trying to take the base colors of the black and white and using a clown approach on top of that with some of the design lines."
Crittenden echoed the circus reds and yellows of the makeup in the costumes. "I wanted to keep everyone in the ensemble in red, black, yellow, and white," he says, "and then have Ubu be in the blue-green range. There was a lot of emphasis in this show on the ensemble, on keeping everyone tight and together and on an equal playing field. That's why I kept the palette as tight as I did."
Most of the costumes were handmade by Crittenden (who works at Carelli Costumes), using a lot of stretch, sheer, and metallic fabrics. "I work primarily with magazine clippings and images from books that strike me a certain way. I bring fabric swatches to the directors and talk about how it will react with light and movement. In Show World, the entire space is covered in mirrors - I had to, not compete, but at least go along in some way that would blend and help bring out this burlesque environment we chose to be in."
The costumes also incorporated Live Wire electroluminescent wire, which was visible during black-and-white video segments of apocalyptic warnings, styled after the Seven Seals in the biblical book of Revelation. The actors also wore wigs or styled their hair in bizarre ways. Ubu was represented by various actors wearing an oversized, ugly green head and foam suit jacket.
Interspersed with scenes of Ubu and game shows like Fact Smack (where contestants were rewarded for "TV smarts, not truth smarts") were the black-and-white filmed segments in which the underlying serious message of the play was presented, with thought-provoking statements such as "Choices you don't make will be taken from you." These were shot on the streets of New York by John Des Roches, the actors in long black robes (were they grim reapers or monks?), their masklike makeup visible beneath the hoods.
For the complete story on Ubu 2000, including details about set construction, film segments, sound, and lighting, go to www.entertainmentdesignmag.com. To find out more about Synaesthetic Theatre, log onto www.openthebox.net.