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Ubu and the Truth Commission: dizzying in the very best way

by Drew Rowsome

A ribald couple fight, eat and taunt each other sexually. She is convinced he is out late at night because of another woman. It is not the scent of a paramour that he is trying to scrub away, it is "the smell of blood and dynamite." When she cries, "Who owns your heart?" she has no idea it is actually torture, murder, political assassination, and his three dog buddies, all named 'Brutus.'

Ubu and the Truth Commission, part of Canadian Stage's Spotlight South Africa, tackles the horrors of apartheid and its wrenching aftermath through broad comedy, animation and puppetry. Though the structure appears ramshackle, bouncing from scenario to scenario, the production is seamless with the actors interacting with the animation and the puppets in inventive ways. There is such gasp-inducing joy in the construction and execution, so much horror in the content.

Reality shifts constantly, much as it must have felt like to live through that time. A designer bag morphs into a smooth sibilant crocodile who literally swallows his guilt. Puppets give speeches that are translated by an actor in a shower stall that has re-purposed itself as a protective cage. Cuddly cartoon creatures reveal mechanical murderous souls. The actors are rolled on stage and we realize, horrified and titillated, that they are puppets being manipulated as surely as the skilled puppeteers, Gabriel Marchand, Mongi Mthombeni and Mandiseli Maseti, are bringing cloth and wood to life. Brutally violent film footage intrudes into the animation with an effect akin to a punch to the stomach. It is dizzying in the very best way. 

The puppets are created by the Handspring Puppet Company who also worked their magic for War HorseThey are clever and as individual and expressive as the underwear-clad and lascivious Dawid Minnaar and the sexpot vengeful dynamo that is Busi Zokufa. The wizened puppets that recite their tales of murdered children give a distance that should make the unbearable bearable but, instead, somehow, make it worse. While there are many moments of comedy, the final effect of Ubu and the Truth Commission is devastating. 

A knowledge of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi and a familiarity with South African history would undoubtedly deepen the experience of Ubu and the Truth Commission but, as someone who has a minimum of either and didn't google until post-performance, the sharply-defined metaphors were crystal clear. The characters are only concerned with their own desires, a defining characteristic of apartheid. There is no guilt, only a fear of punishment; no redemption but a hope of amnesty.

The end of apartheid should have been a happy ending but life is too complicated for that. The happy ending of Ubu and the Truth Commission is just as conflicted, but the journey to get there is a miraculous and riveting theatrical one.

Ubu and the Truth Commission continues until Sun, April 19 at The Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. canadianstage.com


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