Joe Kinnett looks convincingly constipated as he sits on a toilet, red-faced and struggling. At this, Jon Margheim couldn't be more pleased.
It's the first rehearsal of Ubu, which Margheim's directing for Theatre 'd Art, the company he runs with Brian Mann and Laura TimmKreitzer.
"Generally, absurdist theater explores the idea that the world we live in doesn't make any sense, [so] there's no use trying to explain it," says Margheim.
The existence of this theater troupe, however, housed in the basement of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs' Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, could use some explanation. Like, for instance, how it came to be in a town like this, and how it came to be supported by the UCCS Theatreworks program.
Starting with the latter, and easier, question: Theatreworks artistic director Murray Ross and UCCS' Visual and Performing Arts director Laura Tesman together decided to help keep these three former UCCS students in business. Both believe Theatre 'd Art offers the town something it won't get anywhere else, something even Theatreworks and UCCS can't provide.
"Murray Ross and I tend to veer toward avant garde works and playwrights," says Tesman. "But Murray isn't able to do those at Theatreworks because it's not viable financially."
While they may not be viable for Theatreworks audiences, plays like Ubu do provoke thought.
Ubu Roi, the play used as the basis for Margheim's revision, was the one of the first plays of its time to embrace profanity. Telling the story of its main character, Pa Ubu, overthrowing the king of Poland, the play caused a riot in France when it was first performed in 1896.
Margheim's version is less political, but equally vile. His pits Pa Ubu as the Grand High Minister of sanitation, who overthrows King Rectimus with the help of approximately 30 puppets.
"Although Ubu has a definite structure and plot, it flies in the face of convention," Margheim says.
There are other changes to the original script, like how Margheim uses the details of the life of Alfred Jarry, the playwright of the original Ubu series. According to Margheim, Jarry took on some of the aspects of his famed character late in his own life, donning a peculiar accent and referring to himself as "we." By the end of Margheim's version, Jarry, the character used to narrate the piece, and Ubu become quite entangled in their own right.
This kind of production sounds like a mighty task to undertake for a small group. But Theatre 'd Art's been doing similar things since 2003, when Margheim and Mann were theater students at UCCS. During their first production, A Very Nice Play About Love (Maybe), which Mann wrote, the two developed a strong professional relationship.
Mann says he and Margheim chose the name Theatre 'd Art because "it sounds a little full of itself." They also intentionally misplaced the apostrophe "to suggest there's something off about the theater as a whole."
"It was savvy of them to bill their student productions as "Theatre 'd Art' with the hope they would someday turn into a company," says Tesman.
They picked up their third member, Laura TimmKreitzer, when their artistic director ducked out on them during an earlier production of Ubu. The trio assembled a loose confederation of 10 to 12 regular actors and began drawing attention to the largely experimental work they were creating in the Osborne Studio Theater, underneath the Bon Vivant.
Mann and Margheim continued working on performances with TimmKreitzer even after they graduated in 2005 and 2006. But as TimmKreitzer's graduation date approached in May 2007, Theatre 'd Art saw itself on the verge of homelessness. Without ties to the theater program and without a catalyst for funding, the company would have to pay for a place to perform.
That's when Ross and Tesman stepped in and offered the trio three shows a year in the Osborne Theater. They also offered free advertising space in Theatreworks' playbills and programs.
"We knew we should do what we could to give them the opportunity to continue to grow," Ross says. "I've been teaching here for 30 years, and we've never had such a core group able to sustain energy and talent for as long as they have."
Tesman explains that Osborne "definitely has a bohemian warehouse feel," perfect for Theatre 'd Art performances. There are no permanent rafters or stages, which gives the members of Theatre "d Art the freedom to put the audience anywhere. For their last production, Shopping and F*cking, seats were set up on either side of the performance area, providing an immediate intimacy for the audience.
For Ross, the university's support is about more than helping out a crew of struggling young creatives. He says he's most excited about the fact that University Hall, the school building that houses both Theatreworks and Theatre 'd Art, is now becoming a mecca of theater in the Springs.
"There's so much theater energy," Ross says. "It's not just one little light on one little pan. It's a whole stove, with lots of burners going."
Back at rehearsal, actor Tom Condas, who plays one of Ubu's henchmen, jumps from the ground and onto Kinnet's hefty shoulders. TimmKreitzer, the disciplinarian and artistic director for this production, directs Condas to get down. This isn't part of the play.
Condas gets serious quickly: He asks if he should wear his SpongeBob SquarePants underwear for the scene in which he's running across the stage with Pa Ubu's wife as part of a sexual romp.
They may be serious about their craft, but Margheim, Mann and TimmKreitzer don't try to hide the fact that they're trying to surprise the audience with bathroom jokes and vulgarity.
"We're always fighting the stigma that theater is boring or over people's heads," Mann says.
"In theater," adds Margheim, "there's always a chance that something unexpected can happen. I always want to capitalize on that."
Ubu, an adaptation of Ubu Roi, by Jon Margheim
Osborne Studio Theater, 3955 Cragwood Drive
Fridays-Sundays, Jan. 11-27, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $5-$10, free for UCCS students; for more, visit theatredart.org.