Many years ago, friends of theatre artist Richard Henrich asked him to translate a short novel by the French symbolist playwright Alfred Jarry—best known for his Ubu plays—thinking the translation would eventually become a performance piece. The project fell away, but the translation left a lasting impression on Henrich.
“Jarry’s life was as extravagant and outrageous as his writing,” he relates. “I discovered much that is strange, complex and even bizarre to the point of incomprehensibility. But the project of turning Jarry’s extraordinary story into a play lay in my desk drawer for years, beside the novel I had translated.”
Today, Henrich is artistic director of a D.C.-based venue called Spooky Action Theater, and his meditation on the Ubu-meister, titled Jarry Inside Out, opens there on May 28. Like Jarry’s own writings, Henrich’s play breaks rules and conventions left and right and verges from linear plot and chronological narrative. Even the space becomes irregular: Seating for the audience is off-center, the main set elements are amorphous shapes, and, according to Henrich, “There are no right angles, and nothing is parallel or perpendicular to anything else.”
Jarry Inside Out, which plays through June 21, draws some of its juice from a letter the French iconoclast wrote to his publisher near the end of his life. “He wrote that the brain continues to function after death, and that death could be the gateway to an endless adventure,” explains Henrich. So the play begins with Jarry’s death, then enters his brain, where audiences discover “antediluvian crocodiles penetrating the perimeter.”
“The play leapfrogs from episode to episode,” the playwright says. Audiences encounter Jarry’s lovers, mentors, literary liaisons, family and friends. Of course, those “antediluvian reptiles” are never far off—Jarry’s imagination is never at rest. The audience “sees everything through Jarry’s absinthe- and ether-drenched mind.”
By the play’s end, Henrich says, “the last vestiges of Jarry drop away, and only Ubu is left—Ubu, an eternal being, setting out on that endless adventure Jarry once foresaw.”