Onyourmarkgetsetgo! The race is on at The Ugly One, a breathless 55-minute black-comedy sprint that leaves a viewer both exhausted and exhilarated. Echo Theatre Company's debut production in its new home, a former Thom McAn shoe store that's now part of the ArtSpace in Crestwood Court, allows for an ideal meshing of a bare-bones play with a no-frills playing space. "The next time we may even have a stage," Echo's producing artistic director Eric Little quipped in his pre-show remarks. But The Ugly One doesn't need a stage. It doesn't require lights (which mostly remain on throughout the performance) or costumes. Props are kept to a minimum. The four actors, when they're not in the scenes, sit with the audience. It's as if the viewer is watching a brisk line rehearsal.
Written three years ago by Marius von Mayenburg, a young German playwright who's hot stuff in Europe but largely unknown in the United States, The Ugly One concerns Lette (Ben Nordstrom), a dedicated scientist who has invented a high-voltage connector called the 2CK. Lette learns that his boss (Charlie Barron) has arranged for a flunky underling (Terry Meddows) to present this new discovery at a convention in Switzerland. Why is Lette not making the presentation? His boss does not mince words: "Your face is unacceptable." Lette has never thought about his looks, so he checks with his devoted wife Fanny (Michelle Hand), who confirms, "You are unspeakably ugly." Fanny is not a real confidence builder.
All too soon — because in a satire that moves this quickly, there's no time for (or interest in) character development — Lette undergoes cosmetic surgery. (The operation is performed with wry humor.) The observant viewer will note that Charlie Barron now has morphed into the surgeon. Everyone but Ben Nordstrom plays multiple roles, and the script doesn't bother to point out when these role changes occur. It is each actor's responsibility to make the changes clear to the viewer. All four actors do terrific work. Not one single moment feels out of sync or is in any way jarring with the script's buoyantly cynical tone. The acting ensemble delivers a bracing evening of delightful harmony.
Suffice to say, the operation is a grand success. Lette is now the most handsome man in Germany. Fanny, who once was unable to look directly into her husband's eyes, develops "a fixation with his face." So too does Lette, who is transformed from a simple scientist into a mirror-clinging 21st-century Narcissus. He cuts such a beautiful figure that others want to look exactly like him. This is too great a temptation for the surgeon to resist. Soon there are reports of Lette clones everywhere. Now the play expands on its principal theme about the obsession with external beauty and prances into new areas concerning the ethics of cloning.
Clearly, there are parallels here with Caryl Churchill's equally terse A Number, which received a knockout production at the Rep Studio two seasons ago. Playwright Mayenburg shies away from that comparison, suggesting instead that all of today's young dramatists are "Churchill's children." He prefers to trace his lineage to Georg Büchner. So it may be that seeing The Ugly One will provide a helpful approach to Upstream Theater's adaptation of Büchner's Woyzeck, which opens next week.
But that's just icing. When it's not running as fast as it can, The Ugly One stands on its own as a wickedly probing social satire. By presenting one of the first American productions of this lightning bolt of a play — and by staging it so enjoyably — once again Echo reminds us of its integral place in the St. Louis theater scene. This small but vital company excels in offering audiences something outside the norm. And not different merely for the sake of being different: It's hard to imagine theater being much more fun than this.
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