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A CurtainUp Review
The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui
By Elyse Sommer
Brecht's tendency to sacrifice subtlety for message was especially obvious in the parallels between American gangster and the Nazis from whose reign of terror Brecht was fleeing when he wrote The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. If he were still alive and writing his parable today, who knows if he too might not have and American gangsters our current president. If Brecht were alive and writing this play today, might he, like Mr. Doyle, have accompanied that final "Sig Heil" with shouts of "Lock Her Up"?
There's no denying that . .Arturo Ui is more depressingly relevant than ever. However given that Classic Stage's audiences are more likely to watch CNN than Fox News they don't need to be told to shout and scream but are looking for ways to actively resist by running for office, donating to and volunteering for those who do, helping neighbors to get to the voting place.
What's more, no matter how astutely staged and performed this this is one of Brecht's most passionate plays, but not his best in terms of dramatic sophistication. And Mr. Doyle's trimmed down and extremely minimalist staging style doesn't change that.
Still, there's the performance of Raúl Esparza to make a trip to the Classic Stage's 13th Street stage worthwhile. Esparza, who was a superb Bobby in Doyle's groundbreaking revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company doesn't sing here but he's terrific as the titular villain. He manages to make Ui dangerously ambitious refugee from New York's outer boroughs to '30s Chicago, remain small and petulant even when he takes over the crooked vegetable selling trust (think Fred Trump's real estate empire).
Esparza looks nothing like Charlie Chaplin's titular character in The Great Dictator (released in 1940) that Fuehrer was clearly the role model for Ui. And Esparza is a fine, if physically feistier, Little Tramp-ish Ui.
Thanks to Brecht's borrowings from Shakespeare, Esparza ably tackles some needed laughter to the otherwise dismal doings. That's when he engages an actor (Elizabeth A. Stanley, in one of numerous roles) to help him to walk and speak more in keeping with the powerful persona he wants to project.
Ui begins his self-improvement efforts by asking an actor for a lesson on making an entrance ("How d'you guys walk around in the theater or the opera?"). That lesson leads into his addressing the cauliflower gang with a long excerpt from "lend me your ears" speech by Mark Anthony. Ui's chief henchman Roma (Eddie Cooper) also borrows from the Bard with "There's something rotten in the State of Illinois."
Brecht liberally and literally quoted lines from the Bard to point his finger at how Shakespeare's nastiest Kings and Generals were passed on to common men. And, of course, the whole format for George Tabori's translation is true to Shakespeare's use of blank verse.
Unfortunately, this streamlined, darkly lit production with all but Esparza and Cooper playing several of Brecht's large cast of characters is likely to leave you in the dark as to who's who and what's going on unless you know the play. That's not to say that the actors don't valiantly scurry all over the place, and from identity to another. But besides much of the action so darkly lit that you often don't see the actors' faces, there's the problematic, apparently permanently re-configured CSC theater with its three seating sections. Whichever side you're in, you're bound to occasionally find yourself looking at an actor's back.
A voice booming out headlines between the scenes that move us through the years of Hitler's rise to power do help to clarify the Hitler followers and enablers represented by Ui's gang of thieves: Chief Henchman Roma=Ernst Röem the head of the Nazi brownshirts. . . Dogsborough=Weimar Republic President Con Hindenburg. . . Emanuele Giri=Hermann Göring. . . Giuseppe Givola= propaganda ace Joseph Goebbels. . . the Cauliflower Trust gang=the Prussian Junkers. Ui's expanded control of the town of Cicero stands for the Austrian Anschluss.
Mr. Doyle's design vision further expands Brecht's easily seen parallels with the same rather heavy-handedness. The major prop, a large metal fence is an all too obvious evocation of Donald Trump's vision of an exclusive rather than inclusive America. Putting the ensemble behind it to deliver the foretelling prologue makes for a rather off-putting beginning.
The Doyle administration's continued practice of not making printed programs available either before or after the performance is hardly as disturbing as some of the Trump administration's cuts. Yet, given this rather confusing production, would be asking too much to enrich that program downloading process by including a script. Since you won't find one with your CSC download, here's the address of a website with no CSC connection where a script is available:
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The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by George Tabori
Directed and Designed by John Doyle
Cast: Raul Esparza (Arturo Ui), Eddie Cooper (Roma), and multiple role ensemble players sGeorge Abud, Elizabeth A. Davis, Christopher Gurr, Omoze Idehenre, Mahira Kakkar, Thom Sesma.
Costume Design: Anne Hould-Ward
Lighting Design: Jane Cox and Tess James
Sound Design: Matt Stine
Production Stage Manager: Bernita Robinson
Running Time: 2 hours plus 1 intermission
Classic Stage 136 E 13th St136 E 13th St
From 10/30/18; opening 11/14/18; closing 12/22/18.
Performances: Tues.–Thurs. at 7pm, Fri.–Sat. at 8pm, and Sat.–Sun. at 2pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 11/11/18 press performance
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