Off Broadway Shows: A Brief Guide to Understanding Curious Plays (and Starting Riots)

ByPaul Ketchum

In 1896, Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi caused a riot at its world premiere in Paris because the play’s opening line was simply ‘Merde.’ This isn’t that impressive considering that the French have overthrown their government for provocations as insignificant as a derogatory remark about cake. To be sure, Ubu was a play that misbehaved, meaning it flouted standards of decency and form. Misbehaved plays often started riots in the 19th century (please see this New York Times article about Hernani). Though we may view these riots as quaint, our theatrical minds, for some reason still beholden to realism, are still very much stuck in the same mode as these fin-de-siecle Parisians; the difference is that today we’ve just stopped going to see misbehaved plays.

Despite the best efforts of theater makers everywhere, there hasn’t been a good theatrically induced riot in recent memory. This may be because watching misbehaved plays, or what playwright Jeff Jones calls ‘curious plays’ (I shall refer to them as such here), happens with great infrequency nowadays. In the interest of promoting curious plays in the vein of Ubu, specifically the demented theater produced regularly in the downtown theater scene in New York, I offer up this humble list of recommendations to get you started in watching curious plays. Perhaps some day you will at least tolerate curious plays, and maybe even learn to love them. Even if you come to loathe them, you’ll at least have good reason to overturn some parked cars with intense umbrage.

1) Get rid of all previous notions of what theater is about. It’s not that the standard musical form or the type of drama that Arthur Miller so exhaustively perfected is bad, shameful, or in bad taste, it’s that the Miller-form is simply worthless. There is very little left to wring out of the standard form of plays where good defeats evil and the audience applauds, evil defeats good and the audience slinks away decrying the sorry state of modern politics, or a group of ‘complex’ characters fight to an impasse about the hot button topic of the year. Curious plays were largely created out of a dissatisfaction with the standard methods for creating plays.

2) Don’t try to make linear sense of the play. Because you’ve already given up all the forms you know best, it’s time to give up your general understanding of how to understand plays. They actually require a bit of work to watch. And this work is not in figuring it out, but in allowing the play to explain how it is to be watched. For the most part, the shock and awe of the avant-garde in the 1970s and 80s has given way to a more toned down dramaturgical landscape. But curious plays are just as politically and socially minded as their counterparts of previous decades. Look for repetition and pattern, and never lose sight of the fact that these plays are also examining our everyday existence even if not in a realistic way.

3) Things are simpler than they appear. The great thing about many curious plays is that they also ignore many complicated dramatic techniques. Curious plays often do away with the bread and butter of the method actor: subtext. Though frustrating for the greatest proponents of bourgeois taste, this actually makes the plays easier to understand. In other words, things that happen in curious plays are often exactly what they appear to be. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, just as kittens talking about masturbation is kittens talking about masturbation is etc.

4) Participate when asked. More likely than not, you will be asked to participate at some point in the course of the curious play. I once saw a performer stand onstage with a sign displaying his cell phone number and his cell phone strapped to his forehead. He stood there until somebody in the audience called him. Curious plays are not concerned with theatrical convention. Revel in your opportunity to participate in the performance. It liberates us from archaic conventions created by a bunch of top-hatted Victorian gentlemen!

5) Talk to the performers after. With all of the new actor friends you made by fearlessly engaging in audience participation, you may now take advantage of the fact that people who do curious plays are far more accessible than any cast member who tours with the Lion King. Go to the lobby and talk to the people you just watched! Tell them what you think and ask questions. These people have been working on this show for weeks and can give you valuable insight into the curious play you just witnessed.

If you live outside New York, your opportunity to see curious plays is more limited. Nevertheless, there are many companies spread around the United States that are worth a look: The Rude Mechanicals in Austin, Texas; Pig Iron in Philadelphia; The Buntport Theater in Denver, CO. The Great Plains Theater Conference in Omaha is one of the greatest festivals for curious plays in the world and many of the best New York companies regularly make tours of the United States including Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company and the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Now, it’s time for all of us to go watch some curious plays, read curious plays, and get ready to flex our rioting muscles.