At Cabaret, surrealism and surgery

No face nor set left unchanged in “The Ugly One.”
No face nor set left unchanged in “The Ugly One.” // WEEKEND

Inside the Yale Cabaret’s little black box theater, boundaries are slippery. The space is simultaneously a trendy restaurant, a substitute Bingo hall and a stage. Hip grad students split chocolate cake with their beaux at back tables, two to a bottle of Chilean wine, chatting about which Brooklyn neighborhood is best for subletting. Elderly women, one sporting a sweatshirt covered in the logos of hit Broadway shows, inhabit the one row of chairs up front, their knees pressed against the shallow black stage.
Neither date night nor retirement home activity night seems conducive to watching a mother having sex with her son with a strap-on. Perhaps the Cabaret just has an unusual sense of propriety.
“The Ugly One,” the 18th and final show of the company’s 45th season, runs in the theatre this Thursday through Saturday. It tells the story of Lette, a man who is so horrifically ugly that his wife refuses to look directly at him and his boss Scheffler forbids him from pitching the industrial products he has designed. At the beginning of the production, Scheffler breaks the news to Lette about his repulsive appearance, urging him to undergo extreme facial reconstruction surgery under Scheffler’s knife. He emerges from the procedure as an irresistibly handsome man. His new face propels him to success in both his career and his sex life, prompting others to have their own faces redone in just the same way.
The script features adultery, incest, verbal abuse and attempted suicide. The Cabaret’s production, directed by Cole Lewis DRA ’14, takes every opportunity to magnify the abrasive ambiguity on which the script centers. Each supporting actor plays multiple characters, switching between them in an instant. Arguments between husband and wife morph without warning into trysts between adulterous lovers, creating a surrealist, out-of-time world whose success hinges on the audience’s willingness to accept whatever the characters say is true. We have to believe that one actor can be at once unbearably ugly or devastatingly attractive, and that two different actors have the same face. In a space as casual and intimate as the Cabaret’s, these necessary illusions prove difficult to maintain.
Lewis dresses the show’s four actors in definitively unattractive white and fuchsia costumes vaguely suggestive of the 80s, all the while slathered in a quantity of starch and gel indicative of the 50s. They perform on a stage divided into three sets: two rooms in an office and Lette’s house, marked by a desk, a table and a stool. The locations morph and merge into one another as characters in the house respond to conversations in the office, and at another moment the office suddenly becomes an operating or a dressing room. A screen comes down to indicate an elevator or a boardroom, or to display a silhouetted rendition of a gruesome operation. The fluidity of the physical set creates an environment as confused and disconcerting as the plotline itself, making for a performance that is altogether aesthetically and conceptually disquieting.
Lewis’s staging of the show makes a point of rendering even quotidian activities foreign. Characters unpeel oranges or eat bananas in the middle of others’ scenes; Lette’s wife eats an energy bar as she perches on her stool perusing a gay porn magazine, powdering her nose to excess; the male characters take turns doing arm exercises at their desks in the office.
The Cabaret pitches the show as a social satire about identity. If the story is meant as a critique of vanity, this message is obscured by a grotesque sensationalism manifested in everything from sex scenes to simulated operations. The play’s moral drowns in its own gratuitous staging.

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