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The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 23, 2016

Elise Stone and Craig Smith
Photo by Gerry Goodstein

The trenchant tale of an underestimated two-bit crook who becomes one of the world's most notorious criminals is brought vividly to life in the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble's production of Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, now at The Wild Project.

Brecht famously wrote the play in a great rush of urgent creativity while living in exile in Finland in 1941, having fled Germany in the early 1930s as the Nazis were rising to power. Arturo Ui is essentially a satirical allegory about Hitler and his followers. Brecht, however, set the action in Chicago, subtitled it "A Gangster Spectacle," and transformed the characters into mobsters, with Hitler portrayed as an Al Capone-like figure.

The play is not often produced, possibly because it is difficult to construct a consistent vision of what it should look like on stage. It requires some astute juggling of elements drawn from period gangster films, surrealism, and pedantic polemics, with touches of Shakespeare and Charlie Chaplin thrown in for good measure. Some productions have dressed the characters like Nazi officers, while others have maintained the mobster look. The latter is what the Phoenix Ensemble has chosen to do (credit Debbi Hobson for the sharp costume design).

Craig Smith's Ui, the stand-in for Hitler, is a nebbishy sort of guy who surrounds himself with a band of thugs who want to strong-arm their way into taking over the cauliflower trade in Chicago and Cicero, Illinois. Given this patently absurd premise, it's not surprising that the best moments of the production occur when things turn surrealistic. There is a great set-piece, for example, in which Ui hires a broken-down half-drunk actor (John Lenartz) to teach him how to emote and gesture to the crowd. The pair of seasoned performers has a field day with this scene, which ends with Smith marching around the stage in mock goose-step fashion to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," bringing to mind Charlie Chaplin's portrayal of Hitler in his satirical film "The Great Dictator."

Lenartz also plays a character called Dogsborough, a stand-in for Paul von Hindenburg, a German hero of World War I who, when in his 80s, was pressed into running for President against Hitler in 1932. He won, but he was unable to prevent the Nazi juggernaut that led to Hitler's rise to a position of absolute power. In Arturo Ui, the character falls prey to his own blind greed and willingly steps aside for Ui in order to protect his reputation.

Among the rest of the strong ensemble, Elise Stone also is quite effective as a widow, made such, as she knows, by Ui's henchmen. In a scene straight out of Shakespeare's Richard III, she is wooed by Ui into joining his inner circle. Shakespeare is also invoked in the play's prologue (presented in rhyming couplets in Stephen Shakey's translation) and in an embedded performance of Marc Antony's famous funeral oration from Julius Caesar.

Mostly it all works, although there are a couple of distractions. One of these is a framing device that offers up the play as if it were a radio drama. The stage is set up like an old-style recording studio, with stand mics, sound effects equipment, and the talented Ellen Mandel at the piano providing original underscoring. There are even a couple of Wrigley's gum commercials tossed into the mix. In truth, however, this comes off as more of a gimmick than a means of shedding light on things, and it is something of a relief when, for large portions of the production, the radio paraphernalia disappears altogether and the play proceeds strictly as a theatrical performance.

Also potentially distracting are Brecht's additional descriptions of the events in Germany, here presented like pieces of movie newsreel clips from the 1930s. These are insistent reminders of the playwright's intended target. For Brecht, the actual events taking place in his native land were of paramount importance. The cautionary message cannot be presented often enough, that we must collectively resist men like Arturo Ui.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Through November 13
The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street betweem Avenue A and Avenue B
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix