The Ugly One, written originally in German by Marius von Mayenberg, is currently playing at PCL Studio, a Kill Your Television production directed by Kevin Sutley.
Harsh clear lighting and a stark set (Kerem Çetinel) lead into a story with distanced and stylized dialogue, with original musical underscoring (Dave Clarke and Rhys Martin). The premise is that Lette, a middle-aged male engineering designer (Nathan Cuckow) suddenly discovers that his colleagues and his wife (Nadien Chu) have always considered him unspeakably ugly and never mentioned it. His wife claims not to mind, but his employer (David Ley) is about to send Lette’s assistant (Chris Bullough) to present their new product, since of course Lette’s face makes it inappropriate for him to go. It was interesting to explore the concept of how his unattractiveness limits his opportunities with a character for whom that was a completely new concept, rather than a fact of life and society that he’d grown up with.
When a surgeon (Ley) offers Lette the opportunity to change his face, he is apprehensive but agrees. Surgery takes place on stage, in a dental-office-type chair, with disconcerting and convincing sound effects. The subsequent unveiling displays Lette as an unusually attractive man, with various consequences. At this point, I was reminded of various fables and archetypes in which getting what one’s wished for destroys one’s life, like the classic horror story “The Monkey’s Paw” that we studied in high school English class. Because it turns out to be not that simple – even getting to present the invention at a trade show brings unwanted complications.
Things get weirder and worse as the surgeon goes on to perform the surgery on others, giving them all the same handsome face as Lette, so that his popularity is temporary, his marriage and employment break down, and he finds ultimate comfort only in a disturbingly narcissistic contact. In a brilliant demonstration of theatre’s ability to convince an audience without the realistic special effects of film, Cuckow’s face, voice, and physical presentation are sufficiently different before and after the surgery to make him look homely beforehand and attractive afterwards with no external assistance that I could detect. All the other actors in the piece play multiple characters, with subtle shifts in vocal intonation and posture making them easy to distinguish.
The Ugly One continues at the PCL Studio until May 23rd, with tickets available through the Fringe box office.