Bronwen Sharp- Ugly One 2
photo by Bronwen Sharp

The minimalist set, featuring a large, elevated platform shows off interesting blocking and is integral to the quick, clean transitions that pepper the play. The script’s myriad rapid-fire scene changes are made possible by Jason Hand’s excellent lighting work and a couple of key props that are as dynamic as the script. The play effectively flits between the boardroom, bedroom, and presentation hall to name only a few of the very diverse settings. Much of the successful transitions can be attributed to Hand’s careful work partitioning the stage, and structured cueing, partnered with a strong director’s vision that gave the show its singular feel.

The sound design is also worthy of praise. John Gzowski blends on-stage, visible sound effects – produced by actors and props – with intense, stomach-churning recorded soundscapes whose rhythms build tension throughout the play. Jesse Aaron Dwyre, standing by one end of the platform and working hard to create the sound effects for a simulated surgery on the other end, contributed to the visceral, unrelenting physicality of that moment and of the play as a whole. The attention to detail, clearly evident throughout the technical elements of the play, point to a strong concept and sense of aesthetic created by director Ashlie Corcoran. She set the scene for The Ugly One so that physicality was front and centre – appropriate for a show totally obsessed with body image.

The story is one of greed, envy and quick decisions. Marius von Mayenburg’s script (and Maja Zade’s English translation of it) features clear, moral judgements that are levied quickly, and decisively: a hard-hitting, adult fable. The cast of four actors, perform eight roles. Their similarities are quickly apparent. Greedy actions elevate their status temporarily, only to have tragic implications. This motif happens over and over, working its way through the cast, until a final, climactic moment where the divisions between the characters are finally erased. Truly, then, do we grasp how similarity can grow to become profound ‘sameness’. It is a strange, grotesque story that makes a strong philosophical point and, perhaps in typical German theatrical fashion, pushes that point to its fruition without regards for sensibilities or societal norms. Exciting, right? Well, there were certainly exciting moments and a couple of great performances.

Jesse Aaron Dwyre, who played Mr. Karlman and Karlman, turned in an fantastic performance. The slightest male actor on-stage, his voice resonated in the intimate venue so that his representation of Mr. Karlman’s dominant, defiant physicality was striking, especially opposite the taller Lette, played by David Jansen. Dwyre’s ability, moreover, to instantly shift gears and become the diminutive, petulant Karlman, at the feet of his dominant mother was convincing and integral to the show’s success.

Hardee T. Lineham who played Mr. Scheffler and Dr. Scheffler also showcased excellent physical awareness and an ability to have his character suddenly expand to fill the room so much that there was often only space for himself and one other. Brilliant, given how frequently Mr. Scheffler and Dr. Scheffler sent others from the room.

Although Jansen and Naomi Wright, the other two actors in the play, did have moments where they shone, they seemed to have more trouble balancing the quickly shifting worlds of the play. Wright, whose paired roles of Lette’s wife and elderly seductress invite some stiffness, never really moved beyond her schticky performances of the beginning of the play, when big moments of physical comedy insisted on exaggerated action to register with the audience. Later, especially while acting as Fanny, Lette’s wife, who works to balance a very trying emotional situation, there was room for more subtlety. Jansen, who admittedly was strapped into one of the more difficult moments in the show when he’s required to have a stichomythic conversation with himself, could have used more sophisticated changes to his vocal patterns to help his audience stick with his performance.

Although the play featured simulated facial surgery, there was little or no effort to actually reflect post-surgery changes. Of course, all of the other characters acted as though there had been remarkable improvements made and, in the world of the play, changes had been mad. Here, von Mayenburg’s point rings out. Corcoran succeeds in showing us a world where, when one claims to have been changed, those around them act as if that’s true. Even more profound, they believe it to be true. They can plainly see otherwise: the actors playing the characters who have had surgery look no different than before their surgery to each other or to the audience. But it doesn’t matter; they are different, and enviable. The desire to be different is exposed as an elaborate charade and envy of others propels the characters more and more into being the same. “Stop wanting to be different,” declares one character in a startling moment of clarity. She notes obvious, visible similarities between the other two on-stage (who, of course, look nothing alike to the audience) and continues, “it’s more peaceful this way.”

The Ugly One becomes a show about how similar outward appearance may, indeed, reflect similar inward characteristics. Or perhaps it is a show that calls attention to how ridiculous that would be if it were, in fact, true. It certainly brings those theories into focus for our examination. It is fitting, then, that the audience is split into two groups, facing each other, with the stage between them. There were many moments during the play, when my gaze would drift up, above the action, to the audience on the other side. I was fascinated by how the other audience members were presenting themselves as they watched this show, so clearly about outward presentation. I even caught myself wondering how I looked while I watched. I realized this was another excellently conceived moment of design, exemplifying careful, thoughtful production. Ironically, then, The Ugly One is a beautiful thing to see and to hear, featuring excellent staging and technical aspects, though, the substance of the script could have used more attention and variation so that the performances could shine through. Externally beautiful, internally fraught. Sound familiar?

The Ugly One runs until February 16th at the Tarragon’s Extraspace. Tickets are $21-$53.