Theatre

Time on his side: Seelig stages Ubu-clever Rob Ford satire

With topical satire, timing is everything, and the timing couldn’t have been better for Friday’s opening of Ubu Mayor. The One Little Goat Theatre Company unleashed its sharp-witted Rob Ford spoof on the evening of the day Ford bowed out of the Toronto mayoral race and big brother Doug took his place—making the show, which focuses on the dynamic between the Ford sibs, all the more relevant.

As I made my way to the Wychwood Barns, where the play is being presented, I was listening on the radio to Doug Ford’s press conference in which he announced his candidacy and talked about the Ford clan’s strong bonds. A couple of hours later, at the close of Ubu Mayor, I was watching Doug, Rob and Rob’s wife, Renata—or rather, their satirical alter egos Dudu, Ubu and Huhu—ironically extolling the “tight-knit family.”

This tight-knit family, as portrayed by playwright Adam Seelig, is one rife with incest, drug abuse, bacon fetishes and Machiavellian schemes.

Seelig has rewritten—to put it mildly—Alfred Jarry’s rude’n’crude classic Ubu Roi to tear a strip off the Fords. Anyone who has read or seen Jarry’s anarchic 1896 play—partly a grotesque parody of Shakespearean tragedy—will barely recognize it here. And, at least in the beginning, you also won’t recognize the Rob Ford figure conceived by Seelig and played delightfully by Richard Harte.

Jarry’s Père Ubu is an obese, greedy, buffoonish tyrant, and one could see how he might be easily repurposed to mock Rob Ford. (Indeed, I remember seeing a hilarious version in Calgary in the 1990s that used the play to lampoon then-Alberta premier Ralph Klein, also a man of many appetites.) However, the Ubu that Seelig gives us, embodied by a cherubic but physically fit Harte, is a bike-riding, arugula-eating, Nietzsche-reading sort of guy, the kind that insists on referring to his wife as his “spouse.” He seems to belong in a Queen West condo, not in suburban Etobicoke.

Harte, who is Irish and sports a winning smile, actually looks more like a Kennedy than a Ford. And his Ubu’s intellectual aspirations bug the hell out of brother Dudu (Michael Dufays), an obscenity-spewing, power-mad bully. Dudu, self-described puppet master, is in cahoots with Huhu (the ubiquitous Astrid Van Wieren) to keep a tight rein on Ubu and make sure he follows their political agenda. But now his kid brother is talking about becoming an Übermensch and a spiritual leader, which calls for drastic action.

To get Ubu back on track, Dudu and Huhu cook up a plot to embroil him in a drugs-and-sex scandal that will bring the Superman down to earth and re-cast him as a flawed man of the people.

Seelig’s script is most often an oblique, not to say nominal, satire of the Fords. Ubu gets hooked on cocaine, but not specifically crack. He sees a therapist, but there’s no stint in rehab. And, taking his cue from Jarry’s sequel Ubu Cocu (Ubu Cuckolded), Seelig’s Dudu and Huhu have an affair—one scandal that has yet to emerge from the Ford saga. Actually, “affair” is too polite a term: Ubu Mayor opens with Dudu going down on Huhu on a living-room couch, and throughout the rest of the 90-minute show this horndog of a brother-in-law can barely keep his hands—and tongue—off her.

The obliquity may actually be Seelig’s wisest choice. Rob Ford’s current illness has even his biggest detractors speaking of him in a softer tone, so any too-direct satire might, at the moment, look like kicking the mayor while he’s down. Rob as a fugitive from Portlandia, and his brother and wife as adulterous lovers, might be just enough of a farfetched scenario to fool you into thinking this is not the Fords’ story.

That is, until you get to the songs. Composed by Seelig (who also directed the show and plays piano in its onstage musical trio), these are witty R&B pastiches that riff on notorious Ford statements and behaviour. One is built around the refrain “Plenty to eat at home.” Another is a blues-rock anthem to “Etobicocaine,” complete with Harte’s Ubu making like Eric Clapton on an electric guitar.

Harte, Dufays and Van Wieren really sell the songs, negotiating the tongue-twisting lyrics like cyclists weaving through downtown traffic. They also throw themselves into the crude, farcical plot, which has Huhu impersonating a French hooker with an accent as slippery as K-Y Jelly and crass Dudu pretending to be a sensitive female therapist. Such are their manic exertions that all three actor-singers were glistening with sweat by the time the performance came to its abrupt end.

But getting back to timing: will Ubu Mayor be able to draw an audience right now? With Rob Ford in the hospital, awaiting the results of a biopsy on the tumour in his abdomen, people may not be in the mood to laugh at him. Then again, One Little Goat’s show is much nastier to the Doug Ford figure, who is painted as the devious, scheming power-behind-the-throne. With Doug in the race now, Torontonians will be scrutinizing him as never before, questioning his own political ambitions. Already the focus is beginning to shift. The top headline on The Globe and Mail’s website Saturday morning: “Doug Ford running for mayor was long-time backup plan: sources.” Ubu Mayor may indeed be the right play at the right time.

Basketball jones: They’re shooting hoops and baring souls at the Theatre Centre these days. In Monday Nights, by 6th Man Collective, five young actors recapture the summer of 2008, when they gathered faithfully on the first night of the work week to play basketball down by the lake. It’s a participatory piece of theatre in which the audience breaks up into teams and the actors coach them on the rudiments of the sport. So, while we listen to revelatory monologues by the guys (some via headsets), we also get to practise our dribbling, passing and slam dunks. The writing, though heartfelt, is weak; but the basketball drills are a lot of fun. By the end, the collective has got its simple point across: that team sports are an exhilarating means of escape.

Ubu Mayor runs to Sept. 21. www.onelittlegoat.org

Monday Nights runs to Sept. 20. www.theatrecentre.org

Photo: Ubu Mayor stars (left to right) Astrid Van Wieren, Richard Harte and Michael Dufays. (Photo courtesy of One Little Goat)

© 2014 Martin Morrow

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