Illustration of Donald Trump as King Ubu by Iida Lanki
Question: What do a 19th-century physics teacher, a French playwright and President Donald Trump have in common? Answer: All three figure in Trumpuboo Rex: King Turd Revisited, a one-night staged reading on Monday, February 20, at the FlynnSpace in Burlington. The adaptation by Burlington-based theater artist David Schein and South Burlington writer Seth Steinzor updates Alfred Jarry's absurdist play Ubu Roi, with Trump as King Ubu.
The French playwright's Ubu Roi opened, and closed, on December 10, 1896, at the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre in Paris. The outrageous, obscenity-laced romp centered on disgusting buffoon King Ubu and railed against theatrical tradition and structures of power in general. Many consider the work a precursor to a slew of modern art-isms: dadaism, surrealism, futurism. The titular character was allegedly modeled after a physics teacher whom Jarry — 23 at the time — found particularly unsavory.
"Theater should always cause a lot of trouble," Schein told Seven Days by phone. His and Steinzor's Ubu (which Schein is directing) is part of Bad Hombres and Nasty Women's Not My President's Day — billed on its website as "coming to a safe and special theater near you." The global "festival," initiated by performance artist Holly Hughes, amounts to a theatrical insurrection of acting and art-ing out against the Trump presidency. (In Vermont, Marlboro College will host a different related event: "Two-Spirit Resistance" with indigenous performer Muriel Miguel.)
Ubu Roi is "really important as a piece of rebellious art," Schein said. "If you're a theater person in the world," he noted, "from China to Tierra del Fuego, you know about Ubu."
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And Jarry's play appears to have become a useful tool in the anti-Trump theater artist's toolbox. During election season last fall, a handful of Trump-infused Ubu adaptations popped up across the U.S. from Seattle, Wash., to Lubbock, Texas. Schein and Steinzor are well prepared to join the ranks of Ubu updaters. Schein is a writer, performer and director who cofounded the Berkeley-based Blake Street Hawkeyes troupe in the 1970s. His many endeavors include collaborating with Chicano performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña in the 1980s and, more recently, performing the gender-bending solo piece "Out Comes Butch" at Burlington's Off Center for the Dramatic Arts.
Steinzor, who makes his living as a civil rights and welfare attorney, has spent the last couple of decades adapting Dante's The Divine Comedy. Last November, he released Among the Lost (In Dante's Wake), a contemporary interpretation of Purgatorio, the second book in Dante's narrative poem.
In Schein and Steinzor's Trumpuboo, any resemblance to actual persons is, of course, inspired by America's current theater of politics. Joining Trumpuboo, played primarily by Merlin Gil, are such principals as Invankapieceofassuboo, the Ponce of Pence (Boss of Wombs), Barakakapotus, Bad Vlad, Hilarova Qualified, Jeff Secession, Stevevil and Kkkelly Ann. Accompanying the players will be the Turd Chorus, a whoopee cushion-bearing ensemble that alternates between representing the Wall of Pundits, a Debraining Machine, and "various mobs, armies and popular fascist and democratic movements," explained Schein.
"We're taking incredible liberty," he added, noting that Jarry "had rules" about other uses of Ubu Roi. "I don't think he wanted it to have any kind of literal context," Schein said, "and [we're] completely violating that, in a way."
The final script is still a moving target. "[Seth and I] didn't want to finish it too fast, because everything is happening right now," said Schein. "I hope it's not out of date by next week." Once completed, Schein offered, "If people want to publish or steal it, that's fine."
However it turns out, the performance promises to be willful, spirited and irreverent. Publicity materials emphasize that "Though childish, it is not suitable for children." Except, of course, grown ones.
Trumpuboo Rex: King Turd Revisited, adapted by David Schein and Seth Steinzor, Monday, February 20, 7:30 p.m., at FlynnSpace in Burlington. Tickets free at the door.
Rachel is an arts staff writer at Seven Days. She writes from the intersections of art, visual culture and anthropology, and has contributed to The New Inquiry, The LA Review of Books and Artforum, among other publications.