Summer Guide: ‘Dragon of Sausage’ updates ‘Ubu Roi’ with darker humor

When Alfred Jarry’s classic play “Ubu Roi” first premiered in France in 1896, it was something of a “Colbert Report” of its time. But instead of laughing, theatergoers staged riots in response to its taboo political satire.

Alarum Theatre founders Shannon Knapp and Jordan Matthew Walsh, along with company member and co-writer Connor Pickett — all 2013 Pitt graduates — are not expecting riots at their performances of “Dragon of Sausage: Truly Ubu Krisis,” a retooled version of “Ubu Roi” on July 18 through 20 and 24 through 26. After all, the audience at Alarum Theatre productions is almost exclusively made up of 20- to 26-year-olds who are much more exposed to daring political satire than the French were in 1896.

The term “pataphysics,” or the science of imaginary laws that go beyond the realm of metaphysics, was introduced by the 19th century playwright Jarry. “Ubu Roi,” Jarry’s controversial 1896 production, was the French writer’s fusion of pataphysics with edgy political commentary.

“In Jarry’s work, reality is an intellectual construct and not fact,” Walsh said. “The way Jarry writes about it, pataphysics is the science of the imagination.” 

Alarum’s take on the play consists of various stories from those who lived under the tyranny of the one and only Ubu, who also appears onstage. Loaded with political satire and physical humor, “Dragon of Sausage” is hilariously violent — a seemingly impossible pairing. But in the context of Jarry’s work, the impossible does not exist.  

A prime example of such a contradiction in Ubu Roi comes when Ubu is killed, and appears again in the next scene as if nothing ever happened. 

“The weird logic of [Jarry’s] original work is that if you use your imagination, that is possible,” Walsh said.  

Knapp and Walsh want theatergoers to see a reality completely divorced from that of conventional theater in their upcoming performance. When they founded the company in March 2013, they had no interest in following the established settings, modes and constructs of modern theater. 

“We have really big, broad theoretical ideas of what the theater should do, and we don’t see that the theater does those things. So we wanted to do it ourselves rather than work within the establishment that already exists,” Knapp said. “Due to our worldly commitments, it is easier to exist in a way that is numb. So the first thing we want to do is wake you up.” 

The founders and co-writer stressed that an Alarum production should expand the depth of feelings and emotions in ways that conventional theater cannot. 

“The goal for every Alarum show is not to make you feel a specific thing, but to be so in touch that you feel in a boundless way,” Pickett said. 

Alarum performances strive to be distinctly original, since the company rarely performs on a traditional stage. Past productions have occurred under bridges, on street corners and in abandoned warehouses. So far in its 2014 season, which began in April, Alarum has performed “Slowly, Saudade: a senseplay” and “Iphigenia and Other Daughters.”  

Many of the productions Alarum has staged in its short history have never been seen before in Pittsburgh. “Dragons of Sausage” is an exception — but you’ll never see an Alarum play that sticks to the original playwright’s script. 

“If we ever did a Shakespeare play, we would do our take on a particular concept of the play,” Knapp said.   

Alarum’s conceptual take on “Ubu Roi” involves eight actors playing the part of a Polish refugee group whose members are living witnesses to the tyranny of King Ubu. The actors’ names have been withheld from the public, because the characters they play are constantly hiding from potential agents of Ubuism in America.

The actors play a refugee troupe called Polska Wolny dla Doskanatych Jutra (Free Poland for Perfect Tomorrows) and will tell their tragic, yet excessively sarcastic, stories of oppression onstage. The eight-man troupe will perform the entire play, with one of the actors playing Ubu himself. 

But there’s an important catch — the refugees would prefer not to be rounded up by Ubuist agents and subsequently be tortured. So, a time and location for the play will not be released to the public. Anyone who wants to attend the play must send an email to [email protected], and will receive a reply with a location and time prior to the performance.

The “Polish refugees” will represent an element of Alarum’s production that Jarry never envisioned. But it will also stay true to Jarry’s original work, while also feeding the Colbert fans who come to watch with its politically charged humor. 

A dark comedy through and through, “Dragons of Sausage” strives to brighten up these tragic situations. Through the voices of eight people who lived under tyranny, the audience will get a look at some of the ridiculous excesses of a true dictatorship. 

“The stories are crushingly upsetting, but they’re also hilarious,” Pickett said.