The Ugly One @ Ensemble Studio Theatre

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]f the report is accurate, then Superman is faster than a speeding bullet, but he would still end up eating the dust of “The Ugly One”. It’s a hyper-frenzied whirlwind of a show. The topic is beauty. Or, should I say, the target?

Beauty: arbitrary by definition, transitory by nature. That which both facilitates and hinders; a toxicant if envied, madness if pursued, a handicap to lack, a catastrophe to possess. Beauty is only skin deep, but that’s enough. If anyone cared about inner beauty, x-rays would be pornographic.

Director Gates McFadden has taken Marius von Mayenburg’s scathing indictment of the obsession with beauty and fashioned a rabbit hole of her own devising, which she gleefully hurls the audience down head first.

Lette (Robert Joy) is the heralded inventor of that prestigious gewgaw the 2-CK Connector. He is slated to present his state-of-the-art ware at an upcoming sales convention until he learns that his fruit fixated boss (Tony Pasqualini), has tapped his assistant Karlmann (Peter Larney) to introduce the 2-CK Connector to the world.

Demanding to know the reason for his being castoff, Lette’s boss blithely tells him that “his face is unacceptable.” That he is, in fact, so grotesque that if he were beaten with an ugly club it could only be an improvement. Therefore, his boss decided better to have the new product line introduced by someone less esthetically challenged.

Lette, unwilling to accept this maligning, rushes home to his loving wife Fanny (Eve Gordon) expecting her to dismiss this slander as out of hand.

“You’re unspeakably ugly,” she coos sweetly. Adding that she thought he always knew. She goes on to admit to her appalled spouse that when they were first married it was a problem, but the “short period of irritation” passed. Of course it helps she never really looks at him. When Lette demands to know, if he’s so ugly, how does she stay with him, his wife replies, “I like the way you talk.”

Desperate to be rid of his clock-stopping ugliness, Lette turns to a plastic surgeon (Tony Pasqualini again). Reluctant at first to take the case due to the immense obstacles in fixing such an ugly kisser, the surgeon finally relents, giving no guarantee on the outcome. “We’ll start with the nose,” he announces, “because it sticks out farthest from the face.”

An artsy montage of “nipping and tucking” brings us through the operation, and when the bandages are removed Lette is revealed as…as beautiful.

Indescribably, breathtakingly beautiful.

“I look like somebody I’d always envied,” Lette gushes.

Now the world starts singing a different tune – his wife wants to make love with him all the time, women desire him, men desire him, he desires himself. And his boss happily takes the convention keynote speech from Karlmann and returns it to the new and improved Lette.

Insisting to know if Lette is now better looking than he is, Karlmann is told that compared to Lette, he “looks like a socket.” Unable to accept his demotion to “ugly one” Karlmann turns to Lette’s plastic surgeon and demands the same procedure and same face.

“We’ll start with the nose – “

Playwright Marius von Mayenburg has given us one part Sorcerer’s Apprentice, two parts Ionesco, a spoonful of The Twilight Zone episode Number 12 Looks just Like You, and a dash of the Marx Brothers to serve up a Kafka-esque fable for our time. And as head chef, Gates McFadden has taken the playwright’s recipe and cooked up something exceedingly tasty indeed.

It takes a talented troupe of actors with remarkable chops to dart about the stage shifting from one character to another and pull off as stylized and precisely structured a show as this, and McFadden has certainly gathered one here.

With the aid of Pablo Santiago’s lighting design, Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s sound and music score, and the artful videos of set and projections designer Hana Kim* we are engulfed by the absurd, madcap world McFadden unleashes on us. An absurd, madcap world…disturbingly similar to our own.

I regret to say, not everyone would find this show to their liking. It’s just a fact of life. Some folks crave the adrenalin rush of Kingda Ka the world’s wildest roller coaster, others draw the line at the white knuckle trills of Disneyland’s Carousal of Progress ride.

So if you like your entertainment served on the fancy China with the crusts sliced off with a warm glass of milk to go along, this might not be the show for you. But if you like your theatre sharp, edgy and pretty damn funny then “The Ugly One” is probably just your cup of blue Kool-Aid acid spiked tea.

McFadden and crew have given us a top notch, blue ribbon production, and I don’t mean of your standard fare either.

This is theatre of the absurd on crack.


* (Whose artistry can also be seen in “Closely Related Keys” at the Lounge Theatre)