Opening Nights

Ubu

Empty Space Theatre; ends Sun., June 6

In case you haven't already, you should now officially put Sarah Rudinoff at the top of your Reasons to See Live Theater list. Playing an infantile despot in director Ki Gottberg's adaptation of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, Rudinoff gives a performance so hugely entertaining you know everyone else will get a kick out of it, but so filled with singular pleasures you'll swear you're the only one who really knows what makes it work. It's a fierce clown of a role, a star turn that will have you comparing La Rudinoff to Bert Lahr and Fred Flintstone in equal measure.

Gottberg has taken Jarry's late-19th-century Macbeth burlesque and thrown it into some savage pop monarchy, with Rudinoff as its animated king. Is it subtle? God, no. It's garish buffoonery presented as political commentary; but when the conceit works, it's damn engaging. After an introduction from Jarry (Erik Maahs), who apologizes for everything we're about to see—"An attempt has gone agonizingly awry"—the production opens on Rudinoff's repellent Pa Ubu taking a very vocal dump in his diapers. He's supposed to be some high-ranking government official but he's nothing more than an oafish toddler, and his selfish ambitions get the best of him when wife Ma (Sarah Harlett, Elizabeth Kenny, and Keiko Ichinose in a snarling, snazzy three-way characterization) prods him into plotting the murder of Kingpin (Maahs again). Pa is soon sitting greedily on the throne ("It's mine! All mine! And no one gets nuthin' but me!") and setting the impoverished citizens against one another, Reality TV–style, for a few meager coins, while Kingpin's son Boogerslaw (Jonathan Martin) plots revenge in a hip-hop musical manifesto. To assuage the masses, Ubu promises tax breaks "for all good folks of heterosexual persuasions," but is, in the meantime, "emulsifying" Bill Gates and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a human juicer: Gates comes out as a wad of cash; Ahnuld is reduced to a big, thick steak.

These bits carry the same subversive energy as a cartoon—even at their nastiest, they feel like a lark. I suppose someone's going to feel ambushed by the nonstop aural and visual assault. Gottberg is basically just taking a large, lewd potshot at Dubya's administration, and using sound clips, video, black light, Bunraku, and anything else she can get her hands on to keep things fresh. She's created a marvelous fucked-up fun house akin to Bosch or Buñuel, and her winding, staccato text giddily suggests both Howl and Hanna-Barbera: It has a beatnik's fury, but when Pa starts sputtering non sequiturs ("Tarantula! Spatula! Fistula!"), it harkens back to Snagglepuss' "Heavens to Murgatroid!"

Rudinoff presides over all of this as though wearing a large pair of diapers and exclaiming, "By my green knob, what gives?!" were a perfectly natural thing to do. She sounds like every character Mel Blanc ever voiced, and you could swear she's making it all up as she goes along. She has a satirist's sharp grasp on character, and works the audience with a vaudevillian's understanding of the pleasures of low comedy.

Gottberg hasn't neglected the rest of the contributors, though; everybody in the tight, talented, multirole ensemble gets to make an impression. Maahs is terrific each time he steps onstage, and so is Timothy Hyland, particularly as Captain B, Pa's co-conspirator. Martin's rap as Boogerslaw is a highlight, and David Perez does some slam-bang drag as his melodramatically prophetic mother. The physical production is of a piece with the playfulness: The centerpiece of Carol Wolfe Clay's set—she also designed the winning puppets—looks like the chalk outline of a dead body as Keith Haring might have drawn it; Melanie Burgess, who created the zingy junk costumes for Ming the Rude earlier in the season, does a similarly gleeful job here (the three Mas all resemble an aged Madonna's apocalyptic fever dream).

The production can be a little obtuse—just relax and you'll eventually know what's going on—and once Ubu himself is deposed, Gottberg seems to be straining. The show doesn't end so much as peter out. (By the time of the ironic, ghostly "America the Beautiful," it's too much of a crude thing.) I also wish David Russell's music were more memorable; how much more mischievous the show would have been had it left us humming some vulgar ditty. Whatever—Rudinoff is the hook here. Her Pa is despicable, but she has the balls to make his repulsiveness a treat. You'll gladly follow her "from the Ritz to the pits, in one swell poop!" STEVE WIECKING

Crowns

Intiman Theatre; ends Fri., May 28

Talk about beating the odds! Regina Taylor's Crowns had everything against it from the get-go. It's adapted from a Doubleday coffee-table book with no plot and no central characters, just lots of glossy photos of black women in fancy church hats and scattershot anecdotes about hat pride ("hattitude"). Taylor is a playwright better known as an actress (I'll Fly Away, Courage Under Fire, Anita Hill in Strange Justice), and she's had a run of bad luck: Her adaptation of The Seagull flopped on Broadway, and she got dumped as librettist of the Broadway-bound adaptation of The Color Purple. And Taylor doesn't even wear hats—she's from the post-hat, complicated-hairdo generation.

But under director Jacqueline Moscou, Taylor's musical revue handily hurdles all obstacles and scores as a rousing evening of theater. A winning cast and unbelievably wonderful gospel songs solidly performed help transcend the considerable limitations of the piece as written. Here's the skimpy setup: Bad girl Yolanda (Felicia V. Loud) gets sent from Brooklyn to live with her South Carolina elder lady relations after her brother gets shot in a stupid street fight; the ladies introduce the backward-cap-wearing kid to the folkways of church and the joys of extravagant hats.

It's all disconnected anecdotes, and Yolanda is more superfluous than the interviewer in Interview With a Vampire—these ladies would yammer about hats even if Yolanda wasn't there to hear. Loud gets the worst solo (a lame rap), but has her character's coltishness and jittery dance steps down. Everybody else nails her or his role, and then some. With her soulful "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," Tony Award–winning Gretha Boston tops the cast and earns the right to wear my favorite, featheriest hat of the dozens on parade. Shaunyce Omar lends J.Lo sass to her character (I believe she's the one who says, "I'd lend my children before I'd lend my hats; my children know the way home"). Cynthia Jones gives emotional heft to Mother Shaw, who takes Yolanda in, though the character is even sketchier than Yolanda. Josephine Howell and Deidrie N. Henry make their parts sing; even when they're just talking, they deliver every note of dialogue musically, and they know how to move (with a bit of help from choreographer Donald Byrd). Doug Eskew, as both a preacher and a husband befuddled by his wife's innumerable chapeaus ("You ain't got but one head!"), seems to be in an eye- bugging-out contest with Howell. Everybody wins—in a show like this, you can't play it too broad.

The dramatic bits are touching and amusing: A daughter helps the blind mother who taught her to read get ready for church; a whites-only hat shop admits its first black customer; a woman gets her last wish, to be buried in her favorite hat. Taylor knows her church turf, and if her show has no central drama, it's supported by a firm sense of place (and a lovely set by Carey Wong).

What makes the show, though, is the way the cast sells every line, even the iffiest, and the ineffable excellence of the songs—better than It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues. Props to Bill Sims Jr.'s band and singers who make gospel sound like good news indeed. TIM APPELO

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