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Wehle's World
by Philippa Wehle

Françoise Kourilsky in Ubu Repertory's ten-year home at 15 W. 28th Street. (Photo by Eve Toisson)

"Bravo Ubu, Bravo Françoise" echoed throughout Florence Gould Hall on May 17th as the curtain went down on a delightful evening celebrating 20 years of adventurous French- Language theater programming by Ubu Repertory Theater, founded by Françoise Kourilsky.

Along with tributes to Françoise, the evening featured a retrospective in French and English of key moments from Ubu's repertory: excerpts from plays by Sartre, Ionesco, Anouilh, Aime Cesaire, Michel Tremblay, Maryse Conde and Denise Bonal expertly performed by members of the Ubu Bilingual Company and other invited artists, directed by Ms. Kourilsky.

Sadly for many, this celebration of Ubu's 20th anniversary was also a final bow for Ubu Repertory Theater, which will cease operations this summer. The mood was jubilant nonetheless for there was much to commemorate in light of Ubu's many remarkable accomplishments over the years.

Since 1982, Ubu Rep, as it is fondly called, has produced and/or published in English more than 140 plays from the French-speaking world, including dramas from Romania, Guadeloupe, Algeria, Quebec and France. From the beginning, Ms. Kourilsky's principal commitment was to produce new contemporary French-language plays in English, an original concept at a time when "Francophone" cultures were barely recognized and multiculturalism had not yet become fashionable.

With financial support from the French Ministry of Culture, Ubu started operations in a loft on Mercer Street, where staged readings, roundtable discussions and workshops introduced audiences to the latest in Francophone theater. Major productions were also mounted at La MaMa and St. Clement's Church, among other venues.

Ubu in Soho became a major translation center, with Françoise commissioning translations from important Early on, Ms. Kourilsky had the felicitous idea to publish many of these translations in an elegant series, Ubu Repertory Theater Publications, now an invaluable collection of over one hundred plays. Later, at its own 99-seat theater on West 28th St., where Ubu moved in 1989, Ms. Kourilsky produced Francophone theater full-time for 10 years, inviting artists and directors from abroad and adding special programs with universities and schools to its repertory.

In 1999, Ubu set up offices on Wall St. and embarked on a series of larger co-productions with the French Institute Alliance Francaise and La MaMa E.T.C. thereby reaching an even wider audience than before. Here Françoise accomplished yet another first when she decided to stage a repertory of modern classics in English and French, with her newly founded UBU Bilingual Company.

"Bravo Ubu" began with an appropriate excerpt from Michel Tremblay's latest play, "For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again," translated by Linda Gaboriau and performed by Simon Fortin, a member of the UBU Bilingual Company. Fortin charmingly reassured us that this evening no one would rage and cry "My kingdom for a horse," that no husband would be left by his doll like wife and that the Trojan war would definitely not take place, for example. But, he added, we would have the pleasure of seeing a very simple woman appear, and indeed she did, the evening's Guest of Honor, Ellen Stewart, on a large screen. Unable to attend the event, La MaMa was nonetheless present in a video interview in which she spoke warmly of her long and fruitful relationship with Françoise and Ubu. In her inimitable La MaMa fashion, she thanked Françoise for giving "us a beautiful cultural education" and assured her, via the big screen, that "We love you at La Mama. "

Master of Ceremonies Tom Bishop, referring humorously to Françoise as "Mere Ubu," paid tribute to Françoise's varied and successful career as academic, producer, theater critic, translator, writer and director. Citing Jean Vallier's article "Baisser de rideau au Theatre Ubu," in France Amerique, he compared Françoise to French theater director Jacques Copeau whose mission during World War I was to sensitize Americans to a good image of France by performing French plays in New York, in French. Ms. Kourilsky's mission, however, was even broader. She has succeeded in introducing contemporary Francophone theater in English not only to New York audiences, but to other American theater audiences as well. In fact, he reminded us, "If French theater is alive and well in the United States, it is largely due to Françoise Kourilsky. "

Aware, no doubt, that many in the audience feared that the loss of Ubu Repertory Theater means the end of the opportunity to discover and enjoy innovative contemporary French language plays in English, Bishop reassured us that Françoise had done great things before Ubu and that even though this brilliant chapter is coming to an end, he said, there was life before Ubu and there will be life after. Happily, Ubu's legacy will be preserved in the United States by TCG, Bobst Library at NYU and in France at the National Library in Paris, and no doubt Françoise will continue to direct contemporary French-Language theater as she returns to her free-lance directing career

Following these remarks, "Bravo Ubu" attendees were treated to a retrospective of some of Ubu Rep's best work, from the opening scene of Sartre's No Exit to an excerpt from Aime Cesaire's Notebook of a Return to a Native Land, performed by Ruddy Sylaire, come from Martinique just for the occasion, and finally Denise Bonal's In Transit, featuring the members of UBU Bilingual Company. As with all Ubu productions, music played an important role in setting the scene both for these excerpts as well as for the evening. Fittingly, the evening was opened and closed with the music of Genji Ito, Ubu's resident composer and musician whose recent death has been a great loss to the community. His haunting "steel and bamboo" melodies from his most recent CD rang in the evening's events and the music he composed for one of Françoise's first productions, Jane Bowles' In the Summer House, produced at La MaMa, before the founding of UBU, accompanied the curtain call for "Bravo Ubu."

As the actors gathered for a final bow, Michel Moinot, a regular in Ubu productions, spoke for all when he stepped forward with a bouquet of flowers for Françoise and a fitting tribute: "From all the actors, thank you, Françoise, for your passion." Françoise generously invited all those connected with Ubu's history, actors, translators, designers, to come up on the stage and join in these final moments of celebration of Ubu Repertory Theater's 20th anniversary, a celebration which continued at the festive reception that followed the show. [Wehle]

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