The Ugly One
January 16 to 26, 2012
It was a very fitting coincidence that the opening performance of The Ugly One, a play about the perversely reverential way society esteems beauty, should come just a mere day after I, like many others I’m sure, sat glued to their TV set watching the red carpet of the Golden Globe awards. After a night spent critiquing which star‘s hair/dress/makeup looked best and who ‘s plastic surgery made them the fairest of them all, The Ugly One was a much-needed slap in the face to remind us how judgement based on outward appearances is not only shallow, but dangerous for all those involved. Even better was the fact that this slap was not provided by a heavy-handed preachy production but instead the message was delivered through a clever, surreal, sometimes funny, wonderfully acted and smartly designed and directed 60 minute one-act play.
The story, written by German playwright Marius Von Mayenburg, centres around Lette, an unknowingly hideous-looking engineer, who finds out from his boss that he’s not being sent to present his new product at a conference because he is repulsively ugly. Aghast and upset at the news, Lette goes home to his wife to find out if it is true – if he really is unbearable to look at. His wife, Fanny, praises Lette’s many good qualities but cannot deny her husband’s facial shortcomings. She explains that she thought Lette knew about his looks all along and that she was impressed at his ability to soldier on in spite of his appearance. But her assurances aren’t enough to quash his distress and he instead opts for facial reconstruction that renders him stunningly handsome. This transformation not only changes the way Lette looks (“I look like someone I’ll always envy,” he says upon seeing his face for the first time), it changes the way everyone feels about him too. Fanny is suddenly erotically obsessed with him, his boss is now fawning and eager to send him to the conference and while on the road, throngs of women line up to meet Lette for more than his engineering smarts while orders for his product are pouring in.
But like the saying goes, Lette’s beauty is only skin deep and soon enough he becomes vain and demanding and thoughtless and able to get away with it because of his looks. Until it comes back to bite him that is. I won’t ruin the plot twists for you; they are too much fun to experience fresh. But suffice it to say The Ugly One is an exacting and critical look at our aesthetic values and trust me, no one is spared and no one is redeemed. It’s a deliciously strange and twisted story that makes you think even when you are laughing while making you laugh uncomfortably at the irony while you are thinking.
Just as interesting as the story in this play is the staging and set design. Pamela Halstead remarks in her director’s notes that The Ugly One was a difficult play to conceptualize and a challenge to direct. Several times she says, she and the production team scrapped their ideas and started from scratch. If it was a challenge, the audience is the better for it because what Halstead and her team deliver is an inventive and risky production that is the perfect simple foil for the complex messages of the script. Opting for a chillingly stark stage with white walls and only two props, an operating table that doubles as a desk and a bed and the gauze that Lette wears post operation, Halstead and set designer Anton De Groot create a clinical atmosphere in which the absurdity of the beauty myth becomes magnified.
This bare bones set also does great justice to the uniformly impressive cast, who without scenery and props to rely on are utterly exposed for the fine performers they are. All actors are on stage throughout the play and simply turn their backs to the action when they are not part of the scene and there are many scenes in this play, with all of the actors except Matthew Thomas Walker (Lette) playing more than one role. Brian Heighton as Scheffler (Lette’s boss) and the surgeon oozes wonderful advantage-taking sliminess with both his characters, Kate Lavendar as Fanny and one of Lette’s affairs excels at both the small gestures of her characters (the way Fanny averts her eye from the ugly Lette) and the over the top outrageousness of a woman in erotic heat and Adriano Sobretodo Jr. as Karlmann (Lette’s assistant) and the odd misfit son of Lette’s female suitor evokes both a man wronged seeking revenge and the vulnerability of not being desired. Walker as Lette, though a little too reserved and plotted as the ugly Lette, lets loose once his character’s handsome transformation and his out of control spiral with a fabulous ease and intensity that begs to be watched.
I have spoken before about my desire for theatre that takes risks and pushes expectations. Not simply for newness sake, but in order to bring excitement and illumination to the stage. This script and this production is one of those experiences. And as a result, dare I say it, The Ugly One is beautiful.
For the guys – You may think that the whole “looks are everything” notion doesn’t affect your gender. Think again. SEE IT
For the girls – Beauty as judgement is all too real in your world. This is not simply a shame on us story but rather a disturbingly funny look at how trapped we all are in it. SEE IT
For the occasional audience – Normally I wouldn’t send you to see a play with no props and a surreal storyline – but I think you’ll find it easy to penetrate and fun to watch. In other words, not too weird to enjoy. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – We don’t get many experimental theatre productions in Calgary with this quality cast and script. SEE IT