by Adam Cohen
Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui has been revived by Classic Stage Company. The play is ripe for our times, unfortunately. It is a cautionary tale, historical parable and frighteningly apt mirror of our own current political landscape in one crude but cunning package. This is one for the thinking side of your entertainment though there is much in the raw materials for momentary pleasure.
Brecht goes for American gangster movie meets Richard III in an allegorical satire, in which Adolf Hitler’s rise to power is filtered through the story of a bunch of hoodlums attempting to take over the cauliflower trade in 1930s Chicago. Eventually they annex the market in nearby Cicero, too.
Director John Doyle offers a minimalist approach. Perhaps a bit too minimalist. The set is a stark chain link fence with a swing door behind which sits the cast and their props – hats, table, and lots of rose petals with swastikas. Lighting (Jane Cox and Tess James) is equally stark and minimalistic – fluorescent work lights. The costumes (Ann Hould-Ward) are gray/black hued street clothes. There’s a calculating casual nature to the costumes that pervades the whole production. Both illuminate but get in the way of presenting a firm point of view. It feels like one is watching an early rehearsal, rather than a full production. And is more distracting than enveloping. But it does force one to lean forward and listen.
The text is written in exuberant verse and is full of wry, winking Shakespearean references. Ui’s thugs, including the loyal Roma (Eddie Cooper) and the assassin Giri (Elizabeth A. Davis), manipulate the greedy Cauliflower Trust and plot to expand their power base.
The evening is at its glittering best when Ui (Raul Esparza) decides to improve his presentation skills by taking “electrocution” classes with a has-been actor (Elizabeth A. Davis, wonderful). As he attempts to control his awkward movements, the goose step – albeit holding his crotch – is born. In that moment Ui starts to believe in himself and his possibility of gangster rule; it’s a short step to getting others to believe in him too. Esparza is a graceful actor. He dances with the word play and physicalizes, creating a deft, fascinating Ui.
Doyle’s eight actors leap from character to character – with a hat or prop emphasizing the change. The minimalism and starkness of the performances is a blessing. The ensemble’s work is sharp fluidly handling both satirical and dramatic moments. George Abud, Eddie Cooper, Elizabeth A. Davis, Christopher Gurr, Omozé Idehenre, Mahira Kakkar and Thom Sesma work is sharp, especially when Brecht’s moments of silliness blend into uncomfortable reality.
Doyle’s production is streamlined and stark. But the deft actors assuredly find the menace of the rise to power and attendant consequences. This is theater at its crackling urgency.
Photos: Joan Marcus
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui opened November 14, 2018, at Classic Stage Company and runs to December 22. Tickets and Information: classicstage.org