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Theatre in Review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at the Wild Project)

Elise Stone, Craig Smith. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

There are many striking -- and, usually, disturbing -- images in Kevin Confoy's production of Bertolt Brecht's political epic. Craig Smith, as the title character, a Hitlerian figure bent on taking over the cauliflower market in Chicago, makes a public appearance; on the sound system, we hear James Cagney singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and Smith imitates Cagney's version of the George M. Cohan strut: arms extended, holding a walking stick, prancing around like a show pony -- a series of steps that starts to seem eerily like a Nazi goosestep. A few minutes later, Arturo, accepting the cheers of his followers, is interrupted by a distraught woman, bleeding and frantically reporting that her husband has been killed; she is gunned down in front of Arturo, as the bravos continue. A trial scene that follows is so flagrantly, farcically dishonest that it resembles something the Marx Brothers might have come up with. A moment when Arturo gives a suddenly out-of-favor lieutenant a kiss on the cheek is as chilling as anything you've ever seen in a film about the Mafia. Throughout the show, Andrew Lazarow's excellent video design teems with images of between-the-wars Chicago, newsreel updates on the historical events to which the play alludes, and images of Hitler, Göring, Rommel, Goebbels, Hindenburg, and the rest of the gangster crew.

About those projections: As evocative as they are, they're somewhat strangely placed in a production driven by the conceit that we are attending a radio broadcast on NBC. As production concepts go, it is a mixed blessing. It certainly gets us into a period mood, and the sight of actors reading from scripts, throwing pages to the floor while they angle to get a good position in front of the mic, does provide a version of the distancing effect that Brecht always professed to want. (There's also something beautifully ironic about listening to a jingle touting Wrigley's chewing gum before launching into a play by one of capitalism's toughest critics.) But if we're in a radio studio, why are there so many visuals? And why amplify the actors' voices in the tiny Wild Project space? Happily, the device is more or less abandoned fairly early on, and the actors are allowed to use their natural voices. But this device is strangely off-putting, making it harder to enter the play during its initial, exposition-heavy scenes.

It's also unfortunate because The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui sheathes its ideas in an allegory that, to my eyes, no longer seems all that relevant or necessary. Brecht wrote the play in 1941, as a warning to American audiences. (Until Pearl Harbor, at the end of the year, the US was still officially neutral.) But it wasn't produced until 1958, a couple of years after the author's death, and didn't reach this country for a few more years after that. (Interestingly, even as late as the mid-1950s, Brecht was skittish about staging it in Germany, fearing that too many Germans still felt a connection to Hitler.) The trouble is that, today, we know all about the rise of the Nazi Party -- the collapse of the Weimar Republic, Hindenburg's Faustian bargain with Hitler, the Reichstag fire, and the rest of the whole sorry story. We've been taught it in school. It has been the subject of hundreds of histories, documentaries, and fiction books and films. At first, it's moderately amusing making connections between Brecht's characters and plot points and their real-life counterparts, but, all too soon, his tale of corruption among cauliflower sellers -- price-fixing, backroom deals, media manipulation, and murder -- pales before the real story that has been seared into our collective consciousness. We're one step ahead of Brecht, tapping our feet, eager to get to the next development while the author slowly, deliberately makes his points amid some rather leaden satire.

Pitching his voice somewhere below an Edward G. Robinson snarl and striking a menacing figure in dark glasses, Smith's Arturo evolves into a figure you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. There is, however, a slightly tentative quality to his performance in the early scenes, which I don't think can be entirely attributed to the idea that Arturo has not yet found himself. (The scene in which a drunken old actor, overplayed by the otherwise fine John Lenartz, gives Arturo a lesson in comportment, provides the production's most tedious stretch.) Still, Smith has his moments, assuming a disconcerting authority when speaking to the audience. In a generally fine supporting cast, the standouts include Sergio Fuenzalida as Arturo's most faithful lieutenant, a figure out of a Mario Puzo novel; Zach Lusk as the smiling, quiet-voiced sociopath, Giri, another henchman; and Elise Stone as the wife of a newspaper publisher, who foolishly thinks she can do business with Arturo.

In addition, Debbi Hobson's costumes have a good period feel -- although, once again, if we're in a radio studio, it's not clear why so many changes are needed. Tony Mulanix's lighting reshapes the stage as needed, and includes a number of effects: Whenever someone is rubbed out, it happens in a corridor located upstage right, where the lighting turns blood red. Ellen Mandel has her hands full; having provided original music and such effects as machine-gun fire and the roar of crowds, she also appears onstage, playing the piano and taking on a couple of roles, most notably a spectacularly corrupt judge. I must also add that Stephen Sharkey's translation is very speakable.

I doubt I have to explain why Phoenix Theatre Ensemble chose to revive Arturo Ui at this particular moment, what with a presidential candidate many have labeled a crypto-fascist -- accurately, in my view -- waging as unhinged a campaign as any ever seen. Once again, however, Brecht's allegory doesn't seem suitable to the occasion. This time, the horror is unfolding in plain view. -- David Barbour

(7 November 2016)

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