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Theatre in Review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Classic Stage Company)

Raúl Esparza. Photo: Joan Marcus.

If Raúl Esparza ever decides to become a demagogue, we're all in trouble. As the title character in Bertolt Brecht's allegory about the rise of a Hitler-like figure, the actor starts out unassumingly, coming across like a minor goombah from a Martin Scorsese crime picture, a run-of-the-mill made man with nothing special about him. But as he muscles in on the cauliflower market -- one of the playwright's odder fancies -- of Chicago and nearby Cicero, Illinois, he is transformed into a terrifyingly powerful figure, offering an indelible reminder -- if anyone needs it right now -- of just how far a politician can rise by appealing to people's basest instincts.

Esparza confidently mines the script for every available bit of bitter irony and shivery parallels to current politics. Time and again, his Arturo Ui -- who starts out with a plan to corner the cauliflower market and then sets his sights on the country -- maneuvers in search of advantage while dismissing himself as "a simple son of Brooklyn," a phrase that becomes a no-fail branding exercise. "Buy me a judge, or else I got no rights," he demands, evoking our current president when ordering up a new Roy Cohn to make his legal troubles go away. Appealing to the mob, he announces, "You're disunited, splintered, and without some Big White Chief to give you firm protection," stoking fear and nominating himself for the role. Adopting an amusingly la-di-dah walk at the advice of the grand-manner actress who is his image consultant, he is advised by an alarmed colleague, "You can't walk around like that in front of grocers. It's unnatural." His response is blunt, even brutal: "When I walk into that meeting tomorrow, I don't want to look natural. I want them to notice that I'm walking in." Suffice to say that nobody is likely to ignore Esparza, walking in or doing anything else.

And, raising his arms like a Biblical prophet, roaring out his rage against those would who prey on the little people of his world, he becomes a lightning rod for the resentments of his fellow citizens, turning their collective fury into unbeatable political power. At these moments, he almost seems to grow physically, becoming the outsize figure that his admirers imagine him to be. And for that they love him: After all, isn't he going to make Chicago great again?

There are many grace notes in George Tabori's translation, which peppers the action with apropos allusions to Shakespeare (although, oddly, not Richard III, the most obvious model for Arturo Ui). "Is this a Luger, which I see before me?" wonders Arturo, adding violence to his methodology. He opens an oration with "Friends, countrymen, and Brooklynites, lend me your faith!" A potential new ally, waving away any hint of Arturo's gangsterism, says, "That Ui's youthful revels are now ended. He hasn't murdered anyone for weeks." It's a fine way of reminding us of the omnipresence of such skullduggery throughout history.

But all of this begs a more fundamental question, which is whether we need a revival of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a play that is becoming newly fashionable thanks to the apparently irresistible rise of Donald Trump. (This is the second New York production in the last two years.) Brecht wrote it in 1941 to warn American audiences about the dangers of Hitler, but the alarm wasn't heard: It wasn't produced in the US until the 1960s. Today, we know so much about Hitler that Brecht's gangster fable plays more like an old Warner Brothers melodrama. For a modern audience, his bizarre conception of Chicago, his use of the cauliflower business as a stand-in for the levers of governmental power, and his highly stylized, one-dimensional characters can prove distancing, and not in the way that he wanted to achieve with his famed alienation effect. At times there's something almost coy about his approach. Arturo says, "You see before you, sir, a man misunderstood, and almost done to death by sland'rous tongues, His name besmirched by envy, and his dreams misrepresented in a world replete with Jews and bicyclists."

Whatever he intended, to my 2018 eyes there's something a little too cute about burying Hitler's treatment of the Jews in a witty allusion to Much Ado About Nothing, to say nothing of the juxtaposition of these two groups, one of whom ended in the Holocaust. I'm afraid history has outdone even the highly cynical Brecht.

As for the argument that the play offers a trenchant comment on the world of today: Does anyone at CSC really think that a single member of its audience requires updating on the dangers of a corrupt, norm-breaking, fear-mongering, would-be tyrant? Only someone mysteriously entombed in a mineshaft for the last three years would be ignorant of the clear and present danger in which we dwell.

A better, more intensely focused production might highlight strengths that are missing here, but the director, John Doyle, doesn't seem to have a secure grasp of the material. He lets the actors barrel through the expository scenes in stylized, almost Marx-Brothers fashion, an approach that signals a fear of boring the audience but which backfires, muddling the plot up front. (The cast tones it down for the much better Act II.) Also, the lighting designers, Jane Cox and Tess James, have made some distinctly odd decisions. The scene in which Arturo learns to speak effectively by reading aloud from Shakespeare is illuminated by a single ghost light, an effect that leaves almost the entire theatre in darkness. The result is bizarre: How can Arturo see the book, let alone the words in it? Other moments feature audience blinder cues, an actively irritating strategy seemingly meant to drive home the fact that we're seeing a very, very serious work.

Doyle's set, a bare stage backed by a chain link fence, works well enough, and the lighting, when not indulging in such affectations, is quite good, especially a pair of moving spotlights that prowl the playing area in sinister fashion. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes, consisting of all-black rehearsal wear, feels suitable, and Matt Stine's sound design includes crowds roaring, alternately, "Sieg Heil!" and "Lock her up!" There are thoroughly professional turns by the likes of George Abud, Elizabeth A. Davis, Mahira Kakkar, and Thom Sesma, among others. But the production never manages to isolate what the script calls "the horror in the heart of farce." These days, it's hard for even the most hardened political satirist to keep up with current events. The play famously ends with the words, "Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again." Actually, she has given birth, and we're all struggling to deal with her peculiar, troubling progeny. -- David Barbour

(16 November 2018)

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