Raúl Esparza (center) and the cast of ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Raúl Esparza, Broadway (Company) and TV (Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) star, gives a fiery yet comic performance as the eponymous Hitlerian gangster in this Classic Stage Company’s bland revival of George Tabori’s translation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 anti-Nazi “parable play,” The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (first produced in 1958). It’s the brightest spot in this otherwise monochromatically designed, directed, and acted production, staged by John Doyle in his familiar one-style-fits-all minimalist manner, despite Brecht’s desire for the “grand scale” its best-known versions have received.
Brecht, who left Germany in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power, was familiar with Chaplin’s (his favorite actor) 1940 satire on der Führer, The Great Dictator, when he decided to write his own while in Helsinki. Hoping for the play to be performed in English for the benefit of Americans who needed to be educated about fascism’s dangers, he used a comically allegorical approach that turns Hitler into Arturo Ui, a Chicago gangster from Brooklyn who rises to power via a cauliflower monopoly and the selling of protection, with those who get in the way ruthlessly murdered. Brecht wrote it to ruin “the dangerous respect commonly felt for great killers.”
Arturo is backed by a raft of characters and events closely mirroring 1920s and 1930s German political history. For Chicago read Germany, for Cicero read Austria, for gangsters read fascists, for the political boss Dogsborough (Christopher Gurr) read Hindenburg, for the warehouse fire read the Reichstag fire, and so on. In 1928, Brecht had similarly exposed capitalism’s defects via underworld characters in The Threepenny Opera.
Lacking that play’s musical foundation, Arturo Ui is theatrically flat. The major reason for its revival is to remind us—as if we needed reminding—of the proto-fascism many see in our own leadership (there are even shouts of “lock her up” at one point). But the parallels to Trump are too innocuous to demonstrate how we, like the Germans, could have been so stupid as to allow such a mediocrity to take power.
In Brecht’s original, each scene ends with a sign announcing its historical analogue, like “1929-32. WORLDWIDE SLUMP HITS GERMANY HARD. PRUSSIAN LANDOWNERS ANGLE FOR GOVERNMENT SUBSIDY. ATTEMPTS SO FAR UNSUCCESSFUL.” Doyle’s production, which he also designed, replaces the signs by having the actors speak them aloud.
The acting area, surrounded by the audience on three sides, is an open platform using chairs and folding tables as needed. It’s backed by a floor to ceiling wall and door of iron mesh, suggestive of a prison, behind which the actors await their entrances in what looks like a factory hallway.
As per Brechtian theory, the house lights remain only slightly dimmed, not the wisest choice for a two-hour production that exposes sleeping spectators and, after the intermission, how many have chosen not to return.
Esparza is supported by a seven-member, notably diverse ensemble covering multiple roles. Ann Hould-Ward has costumed them in nondescript contemporary grunge, with only Jane Cox and Tess James’s lighting now and then breaking from its fluorescent strips to offer some visual interest; the occasional blinding beams, though, are annoying.
Brecht’s lines, translated in blank verse (and occasional rhyme) and replete with Shakespearean (especially Richard III) and other classical references (Arturo even recites all of Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” oration), are well-enough spoken. However, it’s not always easy to tell who’s who or, given the neutrality of Doyle’s setting, where anything is taking place.
Instead of the earthy naturalism needed for Brecht’s characters, most of the actors provide a heightened style that smells more of the stage than life. And Brecht’s comic bullets too rarely hit their mark. Only Esparza, in a role that has given such stars as Christopher Plummer and Al Pacino fiber to chew on, has the charisma to capture our attention, especially in a bombastic, tour-de-force speech he delivers toward the end using the vivid gestures we associate with Hitler.
While Brecht lovers (like myself) generally consider any production of the playwright’s less-frequently seen works necessary viewing, this CSC revival of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is anything but irresistible.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th St., NYC
Through December 22
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.