Photos by Joan Marcus
†††††††††††††††††††††††††† By Ron Cohen
what it would have been like to be in near proximity to Adolf Hitler with his
demonic rabble-rousing in full power?
Well, in real
life, thatís probably not a consummation devoutly to be wished. But as a
theatrical experience, itís a mind-blower. And thatís exactly what Raķl
Esparza delivers, playing the title role in Classic Stage Companyís searing
production of Bertolt Brechtís The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.
is a satirical allegory on the rise of fascism in Germany. He wrote it in 1941
while in Finland, awaiting a visa to the United States, his political stance
and writings having forced him into exile for years from his native Germany. However, the play was not produced until after his death, and then in Germany
in 1958.† Since then, the play has seen various productions, with two
English-language mountings making extremely brief Broadway runs, in 1963 and
bumpy production history, the CSC production, directed by its artistic director
John Doyle, reaffirms the play to be as relevant today as when the refugee
Brecht was writing it in 1941, a thunderbolt of a warning against the ease with
which a totalitarian government of violent authority can overtake a society.
And Esparzaís performance lifts this smartly realized exemplar of Brechtian
theater Ė theater mounted in bare-bones style, enacted in a highly stylized
manner and designed to teach and make a statement rather than simply engage the
emotions -- into a raging inferno of gut-grabbing drama.
said, always intended to have Arturo Ui first produced in America, and even
though the script is largely written in verse and abounds in Shakespearean
references, he gives his play the aura of a 1930s Warner Brothers gangster
drama. Arturo Ui, Brechtís stand-in for Hitler, is a lowly born kid from
Brooklyn, who comes to Chicago with the aim of taking over its wholesale
cauliflower trade, and later the cityís entire vegetable business.
operandi is the protection racket: selling protection to the business owners
against the threat of violence that comes from nowhere else but Uiís own mob.
Intimidation, arson and assassination are the tools of his trade, and to
improve his own personal standing, he takes speech and stature lessons from a
classical actor, overcoming his Brooklyn accent and learning how to walk, sit
He lures a
respected and venerable statesman, Dogsborough, into a corruption plot,
threatens workers with warnings against unionizing, fosters frictions between
his own henchmen and simply gets rid of anyone standing in his way.
quickly stretch over to neighboring Cicero, as Hitlerís did to Austria, and eventually Ui recites a whole litany of cities for conquest. And as Esparzaís
Ui rages against supposed enemies and feigns sympathy for those he has
victimized, he becomes more and more a pulsating heart of darkness. The
bellowing voice, the snarling anger, the idiosyncratic gestures, they all meld
into a figure that is at once terrifying and mesmerizing. And even in moments
of quiet, when Esparza walks around the edges of the playing area (the audience
is seated on three sides), perusing the audience, presumably looking for
enemies, you may feel like cowering beneath your seat.
makes quite clear his taleís relationship to Hitlerís rise. At various points,
actors announce the actual happenings in 1930s Germany that correspond to the
incidents depicted in the play.
staging hews closely to the Brechtian minimalist manner. Thatís hardly a
surprise. Doyleís reputation as a director is largely built on his mastery of
the essential, trimming away the superfluous.
unspools in a series of crisp, fast-talking scenes, with the actors handling
the pungent language of George Taboriís translation with alacrity. Adopting a
presentational manner, the performers sometimes turn away from each other to
address the audience directly. Itís a device that works well here, heightening
the sense of political engagement.
company of seven actors surrounding Esparzaís seething Ui give him plenty to
play against, most of them taking on multiple roles. As Dogsborough,
Christopher Gurr pretty much defines the well-practiced self-importance that
can afflict a long-revered politician. Varying shades of threat come through
ominously in the trio of Uiís henchmen portrayed by Eddie Cooper, Elizabeth A
Davis and Thom Sesma. You may recognize their prototypes as Eric Roehm, Hermann
Goering and Joseph Goebbels, respectively.
(l. to r.) Mahira Kakkar, Christopher Gurr, George Abud
sharply defined work by George Abud and Mahira Kakkar as besieged vegetable
businessmen, and, despite Brechtís dictum against engaging emotions, Omozť Idehenre may indeed move you as the
bereaved widow of one of Uiís more prominent victims.
As he often
does, Doyle designed the set, pretty much a bare stage, with one end closed off
behind a cage-like wire fence, where the actors await their entrances and
sometimes issue pronouncements. When needed, the actors themselves set up
folding tables and chairs for the playís various conference scenes.
lighting is marked by a series of overhead fluorescent lights, with sudden
shifts in lights and traveling spots adding to the naked theatricality. The
bleak plebian feel of the proceedings is also expressed in Ann Hould Wardís
workaday costumes, topped by what seems an endless supply of fedoras and other
headgear eliciting a period atmosphere.
It all adds
up to monumental, instructive theater. Even if you donít feel the need to be
warned against fascism these days, with the rise of nationalism coming at you
from almost all quarters, this is a show worth seeing, if for nothing else but
its sheer theatrical ferocity.
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th
212 352 3101