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A CurtainUp Review
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
By Charles Wright
Brecht wrote Arturo Ui in 1941, while in Helsinki awaiting visas that would allow him and his family to flee the perils of wartime Europe. Fond of American gangster movies, he set the play in a mob-dominated Chicago of his imagination. This harsh drama, with its crude episodic structure, is an allegory of Hitler's political and military ascent. Ui — Brecht's stand-in for Der Fuhrer — is a small-time racketeer and architect of a burgeoning mob-protection scheme, who's on the road to big-time criminal influence over the entire mid-western market in fresh produce. Audiences familiar with Shakespeare's history plays will recognize Ui and his rise as also being Brechtian commentary on Richard III.
Though Brecht carried the manuscript of Arturo Ui with him to America, the play was not fully staged until after he died in 1956. David Merrick presented a short-lived Broadway engagement in 1963 with Christopher Plummer as Ui; Carey Perloff directed John Turturro in the role at the Classic Stage Company in 1991; and Al Pacino played Ui under Simon McBurney's direction for Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre in 2002. None of those productions made a case for this long, often ponderous text as a high point of Brecht's playwriting career.
In his major dramas, Brecht famously aimed to undercut his audiences' emotional involvement, keeping them intellectually rather than emotionally engaged with the characters and narrative. His so-called "alienation technique," which includes interrupting the action with speeches, placards, songs, and other diversions, is designed to ensure that a Brecht play will be a call to action instead of an occasion of emotional catharsis.
Director Kevin Confoy has re-situated this production in a radio studio in 1940s Chicago, where the script of Arturo Ui is being performed on the air. His directorial choice appears, at first blush, to up the ante on Brechtian alienation, since it filters Ui's story through the frame of the radio broadcast. But the activities of the studio — actors speaking at old-fashioned microphones, discarding pages on the floor as they proceed through the script, and creating sound effects with a variety of homey items — are intriguing to observe and prove, at least part of the time, more involving than alienating. No doubt the radio-play conceit has made the task of fitting Brecht's epic tale into a small space easier; but what's most striking is that, for the audience, observing the studio activity mitigates the tedium of Brecht's longer scenes (and it does so without blunting the political thrust of the play as a whole).
Confoy has cast this production with 10 actors whose idiosyncratic faces fit the cartoon quality of the play. All but one of the performers undertake multiple parts, which could be confusing in a play with upwards of 40 characters. As they shift from part to part, the cast members rise to the challenge of distinguishing their various roles by both vocal and physical means. Costume designer Debbi Hobson has outfitted them in period garb (including a handsome array of hats) that calls to mind both gangster movies and the era of World War II.
As the title character, Craig Smith is more insinuating than formidable. He's a self-aggrandizing bloviator who appeals to a ham actor (John Lenartz) for help in improving his unimpressive mien. (That coaching session is among the funniest yet most unnerving moments of the play.) Smith invests this doughy-faced opportunist with just the right degree of Godfather-era Brando to explain why Brecht's creepy protagonist intimidates so thoroughly those around him.
Elise Stone deserves mention for the variety of characters she plays, including the slatternly Dockdaisy; O'Casey, the state's investigator pursuing racketeer-influenced activities; and the stalwart widow Betty Dullfleet. Stone's range is illustrative of the capacities of the entire cast; but hers are among the most arresting scenes in the play.
Confoy's production focuses on the conundrum of how a mediocrity with strictly sinister motives and no concern for the public good can attract a following and capture the flag in a significant political contest. As Brecht's title suggests, Arturo's success is not a foregone conclusion — or, rather, it shouldn't be.
The director and designers Andrew Lazarow (video), Ellen Mandel (sound), and Tony Mulanix (lighting) make the most of the limited, Off-Off Broadway resources at their disposal. In their hands, the close quarters of the Wild Project becomes a physical manifestation of Arturo Ui's fascistic chokehold on the Chicago of Brecht's imagination. In the small house, the audience is enveloped in almost three hours of ever-changing hubbub and never far removed from the spotlights meant for the actors. It's claustrophobic; and this sense of theatrical claustrophobia is, no doubt, what Confoy and those at the Phoenix Ensemble who selected Arturo Ui for revival this particular autumn want audiences to remember as they approach their polling places on November 8th.
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The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui: A Gangster Spectacle
By Bertolt Brecht (with the collaboration of Margarete Steffin)
Directed by Kevin Confoy Cast: Desmond Confoy (Clark/Son/Ragg/Fish); Sergio Fuenzalida (Roma, Ciceronian); John Lenartz (Dogsborough/Actor/Defense); Zack Lusk (Mulberry/Giri/Newspaper Boy/Ciceronian); Ellen Mandel (Trader/Judge); Craig Smith (Arturo Ui); Jim Sterling (Baker/Sheet/Bowl/Trader/Prosecutor/Dullfleet); Antonio Edwards Suarez (Butcher/Givola); Elise Stone (Dockdaisy/O'Casey/Woman/Betty Dullfleet); Josh Tyson (Flake/Servant/Trader/Cohen/Inna/Priest)
Costumes: Debbi Hobson
Lights: Tony Mulanix
Sound & Original Music: Ellen Mandel
Video: Andrew Lazarow
Production Stage Manager: Irene Lazaridis
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes, with one intermission
Presented by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble (Elise Stone, Artistic Director; Craig Smith, Producing Artistic Director)
The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street
>From 10/20/16; opened 9/22/16; closing 11/13/16
Reviewed by Charles Wright at September 20th press performance
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