Review: The Ugly One (Tarragon Theatre/Theatre Smash)

The Ugly One takes a darkly satirical look at superficiality, playing at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre

The Ugly One is a dark satire about superficiality in the age of consumerism. It nips at the edges of society’s current idea of physical beauty until we laugh, and then it bites into the battle raging in our psyches between the desire to belong and the desire to stand out. And that bite digs too deep to laugh.

Lette is an engineer who has invented a most useful industrial plug, but he is far too ugly for his boss to let him be the one to sell it at conventions. That job goes to his young and handsome assistant. He asks his wife about his looks and she, unable to lie to his ugly, ugly face, tells him the truth. He goes to a plastic surgeon for a full reconstruction and comes out of it the most beautiful man in the world. He immediately gets put on the job of doing all the speaking at conventions and women line up for his autograph. His new admirers include a septuagenarian millionaire who’s had a lot of work done herself, buys a lot of industrial hardware, and has an obsequious son who follows her around – even into the bedroom.

Everyone loves Lette’s new face, so much so that many men want it for themselves. And the plastic surgeon is happy to give that same face to anyone who will pay a lot of money for it. Lette’s wife loves the face, and doesn’t care so much who it’s on.

At times the language was overly formal enough that I was reminded that The Ugly One is a translation, but the performances and direction were inspired and compelling, and the story is a wonderful dystopic nightmare. At the beginning the audience chuckled at Lette’s ugliness, though not through any use of prosthetics: the actors’ actual faces stayed the same throughout, only squished into hose during the post-surgery periods. No, it was the way Lette’s boss, assistant and wife reacted to his ugliness that made us laugh. And then, very soon, we were made to realize how cruel and shallow it is to laugh at such a thing. And then, soon after that, the conformity of the beauty ideal was brought to a fevered surreality, replete with incest, attempted suicide, and conversations with mirrors.

The production is tight. Things change in an instant: a lighting cue, a door slam, the actors switch characters, the scene is a different time and place, and every time it took me right along with it. The staging is quite imaginative, with a large “stage” in the middle of the stage, and some of the audience (including myself) seated where I would usually expect the stage to be. One of the things I particularly liked was how the “stage” was played as a teaser: for the first part of the show, the action takes place all around it, using it as a table or a desk, and I wanted so much for them to get up on top of it. When the actors finally do starting getting on it, it’s a slow burn. It begins by Lette just lying down on one end, using it as a surgical table. Ultimately, lots of shenanigans happen on the stage-within-a-stage, and full advantage is taken of the wide expanse of space.

A lot of apples were wounded in the making of this show, and I loved the use of the fruit to make wet, cracking sounds during surgery scenes. However I did find that they were overused: it seemed that every time an actor had no lines they had to be munching on an apple. The symbolism was quite apparent; they could have saved themselves a few apples.

I also had to raise an eyebrow at the portrayal of homosexuality in the show as either being the result of having a dominating mother, or being entirely narcissistic. But that’s it – I only raised an eyebrow, I don’t feel the need to rant on about it. So, given that I am a big advocate of the homosexual agenda (I have one stuck on my fridge with a Buffy The Vampire Slayer magnet), I really am quibbling about a show that is ultimately very, very good.

Details

  •  The Ugly One is playing at Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgeman Ave, in the Extra Space until February 16th
  • Shows are Tuesday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2:30pm with Saturday 2:30pm matinees on January 18, 25 & February 1
  • Tickets range from $21-$53 (including discounts for students, seniors and groups) with PWYC on January 8 at 8 pm and $13 Rush Tickets at the door Fridays (on sale at 6 pm) & Sundays (on sale at 1 pm) starting Jan. 17
  • For tickets, call Patron Services at 416.531.1827 or visit www.tarragontheatre.com

Photo of Jesse Aaron Dwyre and Naomi Wright by Bronwen Sharp.