How better to kick off San Diego’s first-ever Fringe Festival than with a play that’s zany and bawdy, features human and puppet grotesques, and has a century-old absurdist pedigree? “Ubu Roi” (King Ubu) by French author Alfred Jarry premiered officially in 1896 (unofficially, Jarry staged it as a puppet play in 1888 when he was 15) and became a modernist classic. Max Fischer Players offered its version of Jarry’s play at – in fact, all over – the Searsucker restaurant on 5th Avenue this afternoon, as the first performance in the Fringe Festival, which runs through this weekend. (The show repeats at 2:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.)
The San Diego-based Max Fischer company has been around for just a year, which makes their “Ubu” even more stunning. Using an original translation from the French by Ghislaine Schwartz, they get across the story about power-mad Pa and Ma Ubu, who kill the king and seize the throne and throw in enough slapstick and scatalogical humor to keep the fairly young kids in the audience entertained (and involved – there’s lots of audience participation).
Beyond the bathroom jokes, though, this is a complex, visually rich production. Occasional asides, for instance when Ubu explains that a joke works far better in the original French, or a bit of stage business is highlighted, are smart and funny. The costuming, in part inspired by Jarry’s drawings of Ubu with his huge potbelly and conical hat, made me feel like I’d wandered into a Dadaist Halloween party.
And the puppets – designed by the Queen of San Diego puppetry, Lynn Jennings, and her colleagues at the San Diego Guild of Puppetry – are works of art. There are hand puppet soldiers, with mustaches and sideburns like Fidelistas; a Muppet-style king and queen; and a delicate wire horse head reminiscent of “War Horse.” For puppetry aficionados, there’s also a hilarious bit of object theater when Ubu, having seized power, subdues nobles represented by various fruits and vegetables by whacking them with a cleaver.
The show could definitely use some tightening. Billed as a 45-minute piece, it went for about half an hour longer than that. But at just one year old, Max Fischer Players is like a puppy, so goofy with its own creativity that it spills all over the place. Discipline will come eventually, though let’s hope not too soon.