Talking with the Creators of “Ubu Sings Ubu”
Not so long ago, after having finished a brief interview with the creative team behind Ubu Sings Ubu–which is probably one of the best pieces of theater on NYC stages right now and which runs through April 26–well, as I was saying, I’d just finished interviewing the creative team, and was chatting with Dan Safer in the lobby of Abrons outside the Experimental Theater. The door swung open and out popped Tony Torn, co-lead performer, creator, and co-director of the show. Heavyset and middle-aged, Torn was wearing dirty jeans with suspenders over a white t-shirt, giving him something of the appearance of a gas station attendant from the ’60s. He waved me over and, before diving back into a meeting with the band, told me: “I don’t know if this helps at all, but when people ask, I’ve been telling them we’re remaining true to the music. Not necessarily the text, but definitely the music.”
Despite being among the most influential plays in the modern canon, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays feel somewhat rarely done outside a college campus. Perhaps it’s the fact that Ubu Roi began life as a collective schoolboy jape, but despite its intelligence and savage satire, it’s just a bit too juvenile.
“I think it appeals to people who are a little too smart and a little too immature,” Safer told me while he and Torn were sitting around lunching after running the “bear” scene, which, in their version, is an aggressive onstage wrestling match between the two. “I certainly was,” he continued. “Tony probably too.”
“We still are!” Torn barked through a mouthful of food.
The idea for the show was born years ago, when Torn read the play that leant its name to one of his favorite bands, the proto-punk avant-garde rock band Pere Ubu. For years, he told me, he’d toyed with the idea of pairing the music to the play, but it never quite felt right. “For a while I thought it was too on the nose,” he explained. “But I always knew it would punk. So for a while I tried setting it to the Minutemen, but the Minutemen is too smart.”
Torn is a stalwart of New York experimental theater, having come up in the early 90s through Reza Abdoh’s company, in whose final shows he performed before Abdoh’s untimely death in 1995. Which is a somewhat dramatic departure for the son of actors Rip Torn and Geraldine Page. (“I used to be famous as the guy in 90’s experimental theater who was running around naked who you didn’t necessarily want to see naked,” Torn told me with a laugh. “I don’t think I’m going to go full frontal is this, but I am returning to how I made my bones.”)
A few years ago, though, he returned to the concept when he received a commission to present a work-in-progress version at the Prelude Festival. The song that convinced him the on-the-nose pairing of Pere Ubu with Jarry’s text was “Non-Alignment Pact,” one of the band’s earlier singles (they’ve been releasing music more or less consistently since 1975). Placed in the first scene of the show, in which Ma Ubu is trying to convince Pa Ubu to usurp the crown of Poland, the song fit nearly perfectly, with erotic subtext to the geopolitical terminology.
“I find the point-of-view in the songs is that of a troubled man-child trying to make his way in the world,” Torn explained of how Pere Ubu’s music wound up fitting the concept so well. “The songs allow me to sing as Ubu in a way that’s elevated above the baseness in the text.”
Indeed, as Torn was trying to make clear when he threw in the last minute quote I opened the story with, this is not in any way a traditional production of the show. The staging is a rock concert, fronted by Torn as Ubu, and Julie Atlas Muz as his wife, Ma Ubu. A five-piece band dressed in pseudo-fascist military garb play at near-rock concert level volume, against a video backdrop of hand-drawn animations by Kaz Phillips Safer.
The text has been reduced and made to fit the concept. It’s even been re-translated in a haphazard fashion. “The problem is that smart people are attracted to the play and those are the people who translate it,” Torn explained. “They’re attracted to the intelligent side of Jarry but they’ve never been able to sell the stupidity.”
The solution they found was to run the French text through Google translate, and only clean up particularly emotional scenes here and there, otherwise relying on the “Googledeguck” (to use Safer’s phrase) to keep the text the barbarous moron Ubu speaks sufficiently dumb.
Safer and Torn have known one another more or less for twenty years, and when Torn turned to him looking for a co-director to help realize the piece (since Torn himself was in it), Safer leapt at the opportunity to do something he himself had considered over the years. The show is, in practice, almost a co-production with Witness Relocation, Safer’s company, as the tech team consists of long-time Witness Relocation collaborators. Safer co-directed, choreographed, and performs as the bear in one scene in the show.
Muz was a natural choice in Torn’s mind for a co-lead. He’s known her for nearly two decades as well, having encountered her in a show produced by veterans of Abdoh’s company. “We’re close enough that when I go in the room with Julie, she’s going to push me further with a lot of love,” Torn said. “And I know that when I’m in a room with Julie that I’m going to have extremely explicit simulated sex acts on stage,” he added with a laugh. “And that’s fine, too.”
“The three of us all come from this nightclub meets avant-garde performance world,” Safer commented. “And this piece feels to me like it has a lot to do with the sorts of things I used to do at two in the morning at the Pyramid Club.”
“This piece found us,” Safer said, as Torn nodded, adding: “I’m getting so much fantasy shit done doing this.”
As live bagpipe music somewhat bizarrely drifted in through the window, Safer leaned back in his chair, looking at Torn. “I never imagined seeing Tight Right White,” he said, referencing Abdoh’s 1993 performance, “That I’d someday have Tony Torn smashing my testicles as happened earlier today.” Safer turned to me, “I told Tony that earlier and he responded sort of like, ‘Really?’ And I responded, ‘You know, had I thought about it, probably yes.'”