Minneapolis theater artist Janaki Ranpura was a student at Yale more than 15 years ago when she first read “Ubu Roi,” Alfred Jarry’s absurdist satire of greed and power that opened and closed on the same night in Paris in December 1896.
She was struck not just by the revolutionary structure of a play that is often seen as a precursor to modernism. She also was taken with the character of Ubu, a king-killing mashup of Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth who ascends to power and then begins to abuse it by killing his own people and stealing their treasure.
Ranpura, who uses puppets and humans to tell her stories, has been carrying around seeds from Jarry ever since. Over the past three years, while on a fellowship at the Playwrights’ Center, she finished a Jarry-inspired play that she hopes will answer a question that’s urgent to her: In an era of the Kardashians and ever-more-gauche reality TV, how does one translate historically remote ideas into something gripping for modern audiences?
We get a chance to see the answer in “Ububu,” Ranpura’s playful but adult-themed play that she’ll premiere Thursday in an intimate space — her south Minneapolis garage.
“It’s about power, sex and greed,” she said. “That’s as contemporary as it gets, particularly since we live in a time when many people feel like they’re just puppets whose strings are being pulled by someone else.”
It is not every day that a garage gets turned into a performing arts space, especially for theater. The folks at Off-Leash Area do dance and theater in garages. Skewed Visions, another crackerjack company, also does mobile performances in unusual places, including cars. Ranpura and company have consulted with many of them.
Ranpura’s garage has room for about 20 spectators. The thoughtful puppet-maker said she found that the most important accommodation she has to make for her show is: “Have a porta-potty.”
“I also have to make sure people know that it’s on-street parking,” she added.
“Ububu,” told with humans and marionettes, tells a charged story in the style of William Kentridge. It takes off from a historical meeting between St. Francis of Assisi and the Ayyubid Sultan Malik al-Kamil in the Nile Valley in the 13th century. In the play, oil is running out of Ubu’s war-beset kingdom. As the pressures build, he tries to find a solution to all of his problems.
Lisa Channer, artistic director of Theatre Novi Most, is directing. Ranpura also has consulted with Zaraawar Mistry of Dreamland Arts. The show, which uses projections and shadow puppetry, has a three-person cast of Maren Ward, Skyler Nowinski and Elise Langer, who plays Ubu.
Admission to the production, which lasts 90 minutes, is by donation only. And she does not sell alcohol.
“This is a really clever play with many layers,” said director Channer. “It’s a clear comment on the daily news we’re reading and a smart take on an interesting mythological moment.”
The playwright is pleased to open a show whose inspiration goes back 15 years. “This is the fruition of all kinds of ideas and experiences,” she said. “It’s very fulfilling.”