Feb 19, 2003 at 12:00 am

Before he turned his strange and dubious talents to the cinema, director Ed Wood dabbled in theater. Few souvenirs survive of this unfortunate epoch, but interested parties would do well to check out ZeitGeist’s latest production, The Ubu Variations, based upon the prodigious and esoteric writings of Alfred Jarry. You get the classic Wood lineup: bare-bones set design, campy acting, outrageous costumes and an incoherent script. Call it Plan 9 from Outer Ubu. But don’t call it bad.

That distinction belongs to Jarry himself. A boozy madman with pretensions to science, literature and lust, he mounted his most famous play, Ubu Roi, in 1896. Response was lousy. Either the vulgar rantings of a corpulent sad sack (inspired by the loathsome schoolteacher who once terrorized young Alfred) were too avant-garde — or the play was simply a piece of shit. Nonetheless, the production closed after only two performances. But that was not the end of Ubu. The play and its spirit took on a life of their own. Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco took Jarry’s acidic insouciance, tempered it with moderation and craft, and produced some of the most important theatrical works of the last century. Likewise, hipsters and pop artists realized you could take shock value to the bank.

The Ubu Variations doesn’t try to shock so much as apologize. The text, as written by director John Jakary and Troy Richard, mocks the now quaint “potty mouth” of Ubu and his court while reveling in its tainted glory. When the lights come up, we find Jarry (Charles Reynolds) coming into the homestretch of his slow-motion suicide. Sequestered in a garret, set above the audience, the “pataphysician” takes immodest hits from a bottle of absinthe and a handkerchief soaked in ether. Occasionally he wakes from his stupor to jot down nonsense. It is in his hallucinations that Ubu (Joel Mitchell) appears, none too happy that Jarry hasn’t written him another play.

Ubu is an egomaniac hungry for fame and fortune — and relief from Ma Ubu (Jaime Moyer), an emasculating battle-ax who leaves the servicing of his “green candle” to a busty blond maiden (Maria Haag) willing to endure the stench from his proudly unwashed undercarriage. Later, Jarry himself enjoys her accommodations, after she has spied the massive dildo on the mantelpiece of his dump.

In such a production, one hunts for fun — or relief, at the very least. Unimpressed by her husband’s rants against Jarry, Ma Ubu pays the wasting genius a visit in his garret, setting up the play’s most hilarious moment. Ms. Moyer, when she pulls back her elbows and thrusts forth her considerable bosoms to unleash shrill put-downs, instantly brings to mind Divine at his most petulant and campy. Mr. Reynolds, his face and body twitching wildly, strongly resembles television’s Mr. Bean. It’s a match made in comedy heaven, however unintended.

Detroit boasts a number of fine actors, but none is more entertaining than Joel Mitchell. I last saw him in ZeitGeist’s production of Tom Walmsley’s Blood. At the time, I said he reminded me of a cross between Chris Farley and Jackie Gleason. Here he takes Ralph Kramden into the blue! Pa Ubu sports one crazy getup — a thrift-store robe that Mitchell pulls back in moments of fury to reveal fey royal garb, complete with a sizable codpiece and white Chuck Taylors. (I love it.) Every word that spews out his mouth is overwritten, crypto-profound bullshit, but who cares?

Mitchell has so much presence, so much zest, that you can’t keep your eyes off him. When he ascends the stairs in the second act to finally confront his creator mano a mano, you’re torn between despair and delight, knowing that the extra-crappy dialogue is going to be taken way over the top. But Mitchell is this play’s draw and he’s the reason to stay put, even when your feet are itching for the exit. Indeed, at the end of the interminable second act, when Jarry has finally checked out and Ubu is plotting to take America by storm (an obvious reference to the alternative rock outfit Pere Ubu), Mitchell works himself into such an outrageous froth that he himself has to flee the premises through the side door, out into the street. So you quickly follow. But not the worse for wear.


The Ubu Variations: The Death of Alfred Jarry, Pataphysician is at ZeitGeist Gallery & Performance Venue (2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit) through March 15. Call 313-965-9192.

Timothy Dugdale writes about theater for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]