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The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Theatre Review by David Hurst - November 14, 2018

Raul Esparza
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's easy to see why artistic director John Doyle was tempted to program Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in Classic Stage Company's current season. Donald Trump's election in 2016, and the endless parade of corruption, scandal and demagoguery which accompany his administration, draw obvious parallels to Brecht's play. Unfortunately, there's little to cheer in the uneven revival Doyle has mounted on CSC's intimate three-quarter stage. Written by Brecht in Finland in 1941 while awaiting a visa that would bring him to America, Arturo Ui is a satirical allegory that depicts Hitler and the Nazi party's rise to power prior to World War II thru the story of a Brooklyn-born mobster, Ui (rhymes with phooey), who muscles in on the produce racket in Chicago by knocking off his rivals. It depicts a gullible society easily swayed, and eventually overtaken, by a low-level thug and his gang. All the characters in Arturo Ui have real-life counterparts in Hitler's inner-circle and the events in the play parallel real-life events in history.

If this sounds unsubtle, it is. And if you haven't studied up on your German history circa 1931-1941, you may find yourself scratching your head during CSC's production. By way of a quick primer: the Chicago Cauliflower Trust represents Germany's industrialists and the Chicago city administrator Dogsborough (Christopher Gurr) is the stand-in for the president of the Weimar Republic, General von Hindenburg. Hitler is represented by Arthur Ui (Raul Esparza) whose henchman Ernesto Roma (Eddie Cooper) is an homage to Ernst Röhm, the head of the Nazi brownshirts. Ui's second in command is Emanuele Giri (Elizabeth A. Davis) who's drawn from Hermann Goring, and Giuseppe Givola (Thom Sesma) represents the propagandist Joseph Göebbels. When Ui learns the Trust has bribed Dogsborough into approving a government loan, he makes his move. He and his gang make short work of taking over the trust, eliminating Dogsborough, clamping down on the press and buying off the courts. Arturo Ui ends with an expansion of Ui's power to the neighboring town of Cicero (read: the Anschluss of Austria into the Third Reich) where he assures everyone their free will is still in place, despite our having just witnessed its elimination.

Despite a hard-working cast, and a terrific performance by Esparza as the title character, Doyle's production, which he directed and designed, feels flat and tedious. If, as George S. Kaufman famously quipped, "satire is what closes on Saturday night," then allegory is what flounders through the week. How can Doyle think the outrageousness of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui possibly compares to the daily onslaught of mind-boggling, horrifying, and soul-crushing news coming out of our White House and our government. Sadly, audiences don't need Brecht's play to point out that our current truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's also a hell of a lot scarier, too.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Through December 22
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix