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In ‘Ubu,’ he’s with stupid, she’s with stupid

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Tony Torn and Julie Atlas Muz in “Ubu Sings Ubu.”Max Basch

NEW YORK — Julie Atlas Muz is shaking her money-maker at Tony Torn inside a Chelsea rehearsal space (a.k.a. Torn's townhouse) on a recent evening, while Torn's hands move toward her jiggling breasts. The duo are embodying the deranged and debauched characters of Pa and Ma Ubu from Alfred Jarry's 1896 absurdist satire "Ubu Roi," an imbecilic riff on the Shakespeare canon that famously opened and closed on the same night after inducing a near-riot. Torn's infantile Pa Ubu can't decide between two competing objects of desire — Ma's lewd gyrations and a delicious party feast.

Torn's co-director, Dan Safer, suggests that he pause for a moment after turning away from the "banquet" and then move decisively toward Muz's come-hither pleadings. "God is in the details," he jokes.


Welcome to the lewd and crude "Ubu Sings Ubu," which mashes up Jarry's scatological satire of power, corruption, and bourgeois complacency with the seminal art-punk songs of Cleveland experimental garage rockers Pere Ubu. The show charges into Oberon for performances Thursday and Friday.

The Globe spoke with Torn, a longtime staple of the downtown theater world (and son of Rip Torn and Geraldine Page); Muz, a celebrated burlesque performance artist; and Safer, who also appears in the show, to discuss the mad, mad world of "Ubu."

Q. Tony, where did the idea for "Ubu Sings Ubu" sprout from?

Torn: I was a big fan of Pere Ubu in high school. It was one of those jokes you make when you're sitting around, saying, "Haha, wouldn't it be funny to mix the songs with the play?" But it took me about 30 years to actually [expletive] do it.

Q. Why was roping in Julie a key to the project?

Torn: Julie and I have known each other since the late '90s and have gotten into a lot of trouble together, but we never got to work together this intensely before. You know, what Julie does with her act is that she makes this really raw and in-your-face stuff but turns it into art and makes it emotionally involving. So that's what I thought we had to do with this piece. It had to be totally outrageous and crazy transgressive. But it also had to be emotional and moving. And that's what Julie does so well.


Muz: Ma and Pa are such despicable characters, but you have to love them. Otherwise then the whole thing is meaningless. And, Tony, you're super-lovable.

Torn: Well, yeah, as I'm murdering people!

Q. Why did you turn to Google Translate to adapt the text?

Torn: My objection to previous English translations of "Ubu Roi" is that they're too good. People are trying too much to be lyrical, or they're trying to be like interestingly absurdist. You can tell that they're really trying to be clever. But Pa and Ma Ubu, in my opinion, are two of the most stupid characters ever placed on stage. So only the stupidity of the Google Translate algorithm could do justice to that.

Safer: The majestic stupidity.

Q. How did you fit the songs together with the play?

Torn: I was worried at first because the songs have such an incredible personality on their own. I was almost a little bit too in awe of them. And [Pere Ubu frontman] David Thomas did not write them with the play in mind. So I wasn't sure that I would be able to make it work just with Pere Ubu songs, because I thought they were too idiosyncratic. Then I discovered that they're perfect. The great thing about a piece like "Ubu Sings Ubu" is that there's no dramaturgical justification for the songs. The songs and lyrics are never thematically about exactly where we are in the play. But magically, whenever a song drops into the play, it's exactly what the play needs in terms of energy and emotion.


Muz: I'm so sick and tired of things being just one thing! I'm so bored with seeing just a straight play or just a cabaret show or just a dance show! Everything has to be one thing, so it can be categorized. This show is everything all at once.

Torn: It's the ultimate mashup between theater and rock 'n' roll. It's "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" of the 21st century.

Q. So what does that encompass?

Safer: There's puppets. There's drinks. There's go-go dancing.

Muz: There's modern dance.

Torn: Shredding guitar solos and theremin solos.

Safer: There's a bear. And pegging!

Torn: There's dim sum served.

Safer: And lap dances! I even bought a new jock strap.

Torn: We have a specialty cocktail that we usually try to arrange [with the venue]. It's basically a Sazerac with a double-shot of absinthe. Absinthe is sort of like the ruling deity of the play.


Q. Didn't Alfred Jarry basically drink himself to death on absinthe?

Torn: Yeah, and Jarry also started pretending he was Ubu and referring to himself as Ubu, to the point that he couldn't turn it off. I don't know, maybe this will be my fate.


Adapted by Tony Torn. Directed by Torn and Dan Safer. At Oberon, Cambridge, Thursday and Friday. Tickets starting at $25, 617-547-8300,

Interview was edited and condensed. Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at