Events Insider Interviews Dan Safer, Co-Director of “Ubu Sings Ubu” Coming to Oberon Feb. 4&5th
by Mike Hoban
‘Ubu Sings Ubu’ - A theatrical mash up of Alfred Jarry’s absurdist satire Ubu Roi and the art punk songs of the cult experimental band Pere Ubu. Starring Tony Torn and Julie Atlas Muz as Pa and Ma Ubu. Adapted from Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi; Written by Tony Torn. Directed by Tony Torn and Dan Safer. At Oberon, 2 Arrow St., Cambridge, February 4th and 5th.
Events Insider: I know Tony (the show’s creator Tony Torn) was a big fan of the band Pere Ubu, but what drew you to the work?
Dan Safer: I’ve known the band for a long time but was familiar with the play (Alfred Jarry’s “Pere Roi” from which the band Pere Ubu took the main character’s name) since I was in high school. I wanted to do it then, which was kind of impossible, given that the other kids in Princeton, New Jersey didn’t quite know what to make of Alfred Jarry and the “Ubu Roi” play. I had a really cool theater teacher in high school, but I didn’t think I was going to sway the rest of the kids towards doing absurdist plays that were parodies of MacBeth that were famous for inciting riots. But I’ve wanted to do it for 20-plus years now.
Also, when I was in high school, I was going to music shows where I would see bands like GWAR (a speed metal band that wears outrageous pseudo-mythological costumes onstage and sprays the audience with fake blood) in Trenton, NJ, and tons of punk shows in night clubs while I was in college in New York City, and that’s way more the world that I’m coming out of than the traditional theater and dance world.
Events Insider: So how did this piece originate?
Dan Safer: We first got the offer to do an excerpt from the play a couple of years ago for the Prelude festival – which is a show of new and upcoming avant-garde work in America – and they asked Tony if he had anything that he was preparing. So he mentioned that he had the Ubu play with songs by Pere Ubu, so they said, "Great! We’ll give you the closing night slot." Then Tony was like, "Oh, f#%k, now I have to do it." It was this great idea but he had no idea how he was going to pull it off. He and I had just done a show together a year before, and originally he brought me on just to choreograph some dance numbers for it, but it went really well, so we decided to do the full production. It was his idea and his concept, but we decided that I would co-direct it.
Events Insider: What were your original thoughts about the production?
Dan Safer: On the surface, it’s a terrible idea, because it’s too on-the-nose – Ubu with songs by Pere Ubu – but I just trusted Tony. For anybody to pull it off, you would need an actor like Tony Torn in the lead. So it was ours to mess up, but he and Julie (performance artist and burlesque performer Julie Atlas Muz) are just so strong. And after hearing the songs and reading the script I thought, “This is perfect!” It’s not too on-the-nose. They’re just different enough, and comment on each other just enough to make it really fascinating. It really stirs some stuff up.
Events Insider: I really like that the French text from the play was run through Google Translate to produce the script for this show. That’s the kind of in the spirit of the original in terms of absurdity isn’t it? What were the results?
Dan Safer: That was Tony’s idea. All of the translations that we looked at were a little too smooth and a little too artsy and clever. The two main characters are these idiotic monsters, so (the challenge was) how do we get the language to that place? And putting it through Google Translate just seemed like the best way to do that. We cleaned it up a bit to make it comprehensible, but a lot of the poetic quality comes from Google Translate the same as it would with cutups and Dadaism. I know Bowie used to do (cutups) to come up with the lyrics to his songs and William S. Burroughs would do it, so it’s just a really easy version of that kind of work.
Events Insider: Did you try to make the play fit the music of Pere Ubu or was it the other way around?
Dan Safer: We just kind of collided them. Tony curated which songs went where. After listening to it, the songs just began to tell you, “This really goes here and that goes there.” So we didn’t try to make it perfectly smooth. Part of what is interesting is how there are sparks between the two, but somehow it just all really fits together. It doesn’t feel strange to put them together at all. It feels absolutely perfect. So it’s not like a Pere Ubu jukebox musical, it’s like the songs really come out of the (play) and they have the same emotional hit as the scenes they’re in. It’s the same emotional terrain.
Events Insider: What is the makeup of the crowds that attended the New York City runs in 2014 and 2015?
Dan Safer: It was a really broad (spectrum). Theater people and music people across a wide age range, including aging rockers like myself. And with Julie in the show, we pulled a lot of people who are into the burlesque scene. It gets a really good mix of people to come to see it.
Events Insider: Why do you think that the original piece still resonates?
Dan Safer: If you look at how we do it, we’re really focusing on the relationship between Ma and Pa Ubu – so it’s this messed up love story with politics surrounding it. And if you look around at contemporary culture now, there’s this insane psycho essentially trying to take over the world – which is happening with Trump right now – so unfortunately it’s totally relevant to how our society is right now. I don’t even know if what we’re doing is any more obvious, because the political circus right now is completely insane. And I don’t think that what we’re doing is any more insane than what is in the headlines now.
For tickets and more information, go to: http://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/ubu-sings-ubu