The next morning, I had a black eye, and I didn't remember how I got it.
Alfred Jarry’s absurdist satire Ubu Roi and the art punk songs of the cult experimental band Pere Ubu come crashing together in Ubu Sings Ubu, replete with a Live Band! Dancing Girls! And Five Dollar Drinks! Tony Torn and Julie Atlas Muz prance, terrify, and delight audiences as Pa and Ma Ubu, and Dan Safer's rollicking co-direction and choreography make for a whiplash theatrical experience. Recently, I tempted Dan and Tony out for drinks, two orders of mussels, and an interview.
John Reed (Rail): We are live now.
Dan Safer: All right.
Tony Torn: Great. Grill us, man. Grill us.
Rail: So, all right. First question of the evening: So is that the same seat every show?
Torn: Excuse me?
Rail: Is that the same seat every show, the seat where Julie finds the hidden treasure?
Torn: Do we want to give that away?
Rail: Well, I might go back.
Torn: I would say—no, I would say the fun seat is the same, but how Julie gets there and what she does on her way there is different every night.
Safer: So if you want to get, like, crawled upon by Julie, the seat might not be the best strategy.
Rail: Crawl is not the verb I would have used.
Torn: It’s the same seat, but what she does is different every night.
Rail: So it could happen to anybody, any seat in the theater?
Safer: Her pathway there—what she does on her way to that seat, she could interact with 10 people on her way there if she felt like it. She has total free reign.
Rail: Did it take a lot of—does it take a lot of preparation for Julie to overcome her inhibitions?
Torn & Safer: [Laugh.]
Torn: Yeah, she’s really shy.
Torn: And we have to goad her. No, what actually happened: I used to do a lot of exhibitionistic work in the ’90s. I sort of retired from that very consciously at the turn of the millennium. I was like, not showing my, not doing simulated sex on stage, not going to show my naked body. And then Julie is in the process. So we’re reading through this very powerful, intense, emotional scene, and I read this long speech of invective, and Julie and Dan look at each other, and Dan says, “Blowjob.” Julie says, “Yeah, that’s what I thought." [Laughs.] I was like “Oh, whaaa?” But then of course it’s—it’s competitive. So I’m like, “I guess you have to fuck me with the sausage, Julie.”
Safer: I would—sometimes I don’t recognize Julie cause her clothes are on. She’s also—I think I’m pretty foulmouthed and Julie blows me out of the water.
Rail: This is actually a good segue into the next question, which is for you, Dan. Do you wear the bear suit at home?
Safer: Not yet. But when the show’s over, yup.
Rail: What’s the sensual experience of wearing the bear suit?
Safer: The bear suit comes from Yale Rep, and it's been through at least one if not two productions of The Winter’s Tale. And it is infused with the sweat and body odor of another man, and also the hair gel.
Rail: Wait, I thought it was your bear suit before the show.
Torn: Yale Rep.
Safer: It’s from Yale.
Rail: So you're sticking to that story.
Safer: Really, it is from Yale and it reeks, and it’s—it’s hard to breathe and the chin strap gets jammed in my mouth and I cut my lip usually. And it’s the kind of thing that if an actor came to me and said another director was making them wear that suit, I would tell them that was unacceptable. But because it’s me doing it, I’m fine with it. But it’s really brutal.
Rail: Tony, could he really take you in that bear suit?
Safer: I can barely see.
Torn: I mean, yeah, the fact that he has limited visibility is my only chance. I’m a 250-pound weakling. I’m a wuss with zero upper-body strength.
Rail: It looked pretty convincing when he took you out.
Torn: Strobe lights...
Rail: Well, this, again, segues into my next question.
Torn: One of Dan’s jobs was to make me appear like I’m the same, like, physically impressive, daring performance actor that I was, ehem, as a younger man—
Rail: Which is my next question.
Torn:Without actually fucking killing my soon to be 49-year-old body.
Rail: In terms of the choreography, there must have been a huge amount of conditioning.
Torn: No. What I have is conviction.
Rail: You look leaner. I saw a version, like a mock-up version at CUNY or something.
Torn: I have dropped some weight since then.
Rail: It was a little scary, that show. Because you were bouncing around the stage and I was like, that dude is kinda heavy for that kind of action.
Torn: I’m still too heavy. I wanted to lose more weight before the show. But you know we were coming out of a very rough winter.
Torn: And I was really nervous, you know. I was—there was a lot of sitting around. And so I was scared—I thought I was not going to be in proper shape.
And I went into the Joe’s Pub gig and I remember starting the—this was even before we were doing choreography in front of a full crowd. We started on “Non-Alignment Pact” and I was like, holy fuck, I’m not sure if I can do this. Maybe I’m just too ragged. But I somehow got into the character and I’m bouncing around like I was in my 20s.
Rail: It is not a joke. I mean, it’s a full play and a full set, a full rock ‘n’ roll set. That is major exertion.
Torn: I do have to say that when I woke up on Sunday morning, I felt both exhilarated because our opening week, I thought, went very well, and I felt like I had been beaten with sticks over every fucking inch of my body. It was like unbelievable. I’m kind of loosening up a bit today, but yesterday I was a wreck. It was kind of exciting. I was like, yeah, I’m really doing this.
Rail: That’s (good).
Safer: It’s an intense show to do.
Rail: And, now moving on to the content: the total lack of interiority was refreshing. What were three other things you didn’t want?
Torn: We didn’t want to be cute and I don’t think we quite succeeded because I’m kind of cute. But the biggest problem I had when I was watching videos of the early workshop at CUNY was that I thought I was coming off as a little cute. And the problem with all the productions I’ve ever been exposed to of Ubu is that it’s just been too cute.
Safer: Ubu is dirty and ugly and funny, but completely in your face. And not everything’s okay. I feel like we did that.
Rail: Well, that Punch and Judy element, if you make Ubu really cute it becomes a statement of conservatism.
Torn: Yeah, exactly. So Dan, in cahoots with Kaz [Phillips Safer], I think, really came at me with a sort of football hooligan thing, which I thought was fabulous.
Rail: Hmm, looking at Kaz's video design: in terms of current technology, whether it’s digital media or social media, what is the relationship of the arts to this moment in technology?
Safer: An important thing to me is that you’re never wowed by the technological innovation of what we’re doing so that it’s all content. So I didn’t want to do any cool video or cool lighting where you would go, like, “Whoa, how’d they do that?”
So none of the technology is—the technology is as analog as possible. I mean, it’s a digital projector and we’re running it off a laptop, so that’s all digital, but it’s basically the same as if we were rolling film footage. Because I wanted nobody to be pulled out of the play.
I hate cables, I hate things that get unplugged. I fought it for a long time. But I think the first show we did with video was seven or eight years ago, and I had four TVs and I ran it on two DVD players with a switchbox. And already the digital technology was there, I just wasn’t using it. But for me and for what Tony and I were going for, it was never about wowing someone with the mechanics.
Torn: Plus Kaz’s aesthetic, if you look at her stuff, it’s very handmade. She paints a lot of the stuff. It’s very basic animation. It’s not slick, which is really right—right for the whole thing.
Rail: It also felt like—well, this is a sort of complicated take on her whole aesthetic, but it feels like she’s trying to be not slick but also not precious.
Rail: It felt kind of ’80s. But it also felt like now doing the ’80s.
Safer: And I love that. I love the lo-fi-ness of it.
Rail: All right. So are we all kings?
Torn: Yeah. In our minds. As Mel Brooks famously said, it’s good to be the king. But it’s also fucking terrifying. So we’re all the kings of our consciousness, but that means we’re dealing with rebellions, abdications, the brutality and the boredom of power. I wanted the piece in a stripped-down way. A lot of stuff that was cut was sort of like political satire stuff. I wanted to make the play very much the story of a marriage. And Dan especially helped kind of craft the arc so that it hammers that home.
Rail: Well, this is my next question, which is: what is collaboration?
Torn: I don’t know. It can be really bad.
Safer: It can be awful. This felt totally seamless and with a total lack of ego from everybody. I’ve had really rough collaborations. And I would never—I would normally never co-direct with anybody ever. That’s the worst idea imaginable. And it didn’t even cross my mind that it was a bad idea with Tony.
Torn: Well, Dan actually suggested it. I was trying to cast around for somebody who would direct the piece. But it was difficult because a lot of people I talked to, I had so many strong ideas. I actually talked to some amazing directors who’d get interested, and then they’d shy away because it was obvious that I had so many strong ideas about it. But I didn’t want to direct it because I've directed films that I've acted in myself. A problem if you’re directing and acting is that the director gets frustrated with the actor and the actor gets frustrated with the director. But in film you can put everything away for a month and then return to it and see yourself new. But in a play, you can’t do that. You’ve got to be in it all the way. I thought, “I need a strong director.” But Dan said, “Listen, we should co-direct it.” It was actually his idea. And I was like, okay. And it worked for this. And as we entered into the process, Dan had to take more of the leadership position, but it always felt like he was translating my desires into the piece, so it really felt good.
Safer: Yeah. I felt like I might have, in the room, and I might have enacted more of the typical director stuff in terms of saying, like, “You stand there, you stand there, you do that.” But I feel like the directorial concept of it and the ideas were a mix. I couldn’t really say who did what on it. I know I did the dances and I feel like any of the more nuanced acting probably came from Tony. But I also know that Tony came up with great dance moves.
Rail: Okay. Classic music that is not classical, and classic theater that is not classical. Am I seeing a kind of pattern here?
Torn: Well, for me the approach has been irreverence about the play and reverence about the music. I got into the music before I got into the play. But it came quite quickly. I was really into Pere Ubu, especially the album The Modern Dance, which includes songs like “Non-Alignment Pact” and “The Modern Dance” and “Chinese Radiation” and “Humor Me,” which were all used in the show.
And then I learned about the play. And the thing about both the band Pere Ubu and the play Ubu Roi, they’re not directly linked. I mean, David Thomas, this sort-of genius behind Pere Ubu, was inspired by Jarry, who was inspired by Ubu Roi. He sort of felt a kinship with the character the way that Jarry felt a kinship with his own creation.
But for me, the band and the play represented the same thing—like everybody talks about how cool the ’80s were and ’80s culture and ’80s music. I fucking hated ’80s mainstream culture. I was growing up in it. I thought it sucked. And I was desperate to find doors opening where I could walk in and not feel like I was a fucking recluse or an outcast from all this sort of happy, preppy shit. And Pere Ubu was that for me, as a band. And the whole world of absurdist theater—that meant so much to me.
I’ve spent a lot of the last decade and a half—after I worked with amazing people like Reza Abdoh and Richard Foreman—saying, okay, well, now it’s time to put away my childish toys and have a serious, grown-up acting career. And although I’ve worked with some amazing people and had some great projects, it’s been deeply unsatisfying.
So part of this project was to say I’m going to try to get my mojo back by opening up the space again for me to inhabit this world.
Safer: I only want to do shit that matters to me. The Ubu character and the Pere Ubu music are both so indicative of—like you’re kind of a loser who wants to carve out your space, which I’ve always felt that no matter how cool I may act like I think I am, there’s always an element of “you just don’t fit and you want to carve out a space for yourself.”
Rail: All right, last question. Pere and mere. Mother and father of what?
Torn: Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of a primal situation, you know. The play is kind of like a really potty-mouthed stupid riff on Macbeth. It’s like a Polish joke version of Macbeth: these two characters trying to work out their relationship while also trying to grab power. I think we’re the first production of Ubu Roi that’s actually made it into a love story.
Safer: Oh, it’s totally a love story. All the politics are there, and I don’t want to—I think our ending is pretty badass, so I don’t want to give it away. But…through all this shit, it’s about these two people who simultaneously drive each other crazy and are just madly in love with each other.
Torn: And it doesn’t mean they’re not monsters. They’re monsters in the play. But we don’t know exactly—it’s kind of open in the play where their monstrosity actually lies. Is it in the world of politics? Are they actually killing people and running countries? Are they just—is it just their dream life? Who knows where their monstrosity lies, but their monstrosity is there.
Safer: I always loved Godzilla more than I loved the cities he was trashing. And I always loved Rodan, and was sad when Godzilla and Rodan would fight because I wanted them to be friends. Freddy Krueger’s a monster, but he’s a monster because he was treated horribly. Jason from Friday the 13th is a monster because he was treated horribly. Godzilla’s a monster because—well, I forget if Godzilla’s a he or a she, and there was baby Godzilla also—but Godzilla was getting shot at every time he popped his head out of the ocean. And that’s—I don’t know. Who's really the monster?
Check out a live performance of the song Ubu Dance Party from Ubu Sings Ubu here.
Ubu Sings Ubu runs through April 26th at Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand Street, at Pitt Street, Manhattan), 8pm. Late shows April 25-26 at 11pm. For further info and tickets, $18, visit http://www.abronsartscenter.org/