It is hard to appreciate a play meant to capture a self-promoting sociopath’s rise to power, especially a broad, biting political satire, when living through a time of political lies, overt repression and daily decimation of the rule of law.
But this is The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Bertolt Brecht’s broad-strokes burlesque, in an Off-Broadway revival from director John Doyle and his Classic Stage Company. It has two major challenges. First, the production plays heightened symbolic theater for naturalistic stakes. Second, Doyle upends what ought to be resonant political theater.
The balkanized political landscape of 2018 America should be a natural for the tale of a thug’s rise to power, what with daily calls to near-violence, racism and repression, and political smears emanating from the Oval Office. But the very real and painful political theater we live with every day raises the bar for such entertainment. A play that toys with political metaphor must convey at least some nuance in relation to the events of our world.
Written in 1941 from exile in Finland as the Nazis rampaged across Europe, Brecht brings us a titular thug (delectably bullying Raúl Esparza) who connives his way to power in the American Midwest. A fascist in the making, Arturo Ui comes upon a set of local connivers who have their own games underway long before he steps into town. For it’s the cauliflower trade that businessmen, of the legal and illegal variety, seek to control; cauliflower is a proxy, of course, for any socially or commercially valuable property. There are shenanigans and schemes involving ships, docks and goods.
Along with his ultimately expendable henchman, Roma (a potent Eddie Cooper), Arturo Ui benefits from local political instability when several opportunists — Flake (chilling Mahira Kakkar) and Clark (spare, cunning George Abud) — incriminate a well-loved veteran politician, Dogsborough (heartbreaking Christopher Gurr), as a strategy to grab power.
There’s a farce of a trial, with witnesses killed in broad daylight, and then it becomes clear: the crazies are running the asylum. This is a spare, brutal story that resonates with names left unspoken in the play but very much on Brecht’s mind: Arturo Ui is Adolf Hitler, Ernesto Roma is Ernst Röhm, Dogsborough is General Paul von Hindenberg; you’ll find Göring in a character called Giri, a Goebbels in a character called Givola, thrown in for good measure.
The places and events of Arturo Ui have their own cauterizing parallels. A warehouse fire overtly started by antagonist represents the Reichstag fire; the Dock Aid Scandal that engulfs some of Brecht’s characters was inspired by a real scandal of the era. Real people, real places, real events — they all anchor this drama; they provide the context for it to make sense. In fact, the reason to revive the play is to make those connections, but Doyle muddles it or overdoes it. When the chant of a frenetic crowd morphs from “Sieg Heil” to “Lock Her Up,” the point may be made about our world, but what of the world of Arturo Ui? That grows blurred.
And because, in the world of Arturo Ui, waterfronts and mobsters dominate, films such as Little Caesar, also set in a mob underworld, and On the Waterfront, where strong-armed anti-union rule is temporarily thwarted, easily come to mind. Both are tightly crafted stories of individuals fighting systems; both are tempered by romances and parental tenderness; both take audiences on personal and political rides. Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge is another example, It, too, enters into the world of dockworkers to explore poverty, need, a yearning to escape, youthful exuberance, the threat of sexual violence. A profoundly realist drama, it was fragmented in a potent 2015 Broadway revival directed by Ivo van Hove where the set was a ring and the dramatic climax presented as a rain of blood. Yet the core story still worked.
Here, by contrast, Doyle delivers heightened sensibilities to the detriment, not a clarifying view, of the core story. The uncredited set, for example, features floor-to-ceiling chain link through which we see bare brick walls. It’s a frame, but it collides with the actors’ direct and conversational style; they also set up and break down their scenes with folding chairs and tables as if we’re watching them in a rehearsal hall. It’s all bare skin and raw bones aimed at revealing Brecht’s words, when Brecht’s words beg for something outsized, something more comprehensively conceptual.
Arturo Ui begins and ends with direct address to the audience, eerily told by the ensemble in shadow behind the fence. Much like Stephen Sondheim’s beseeching “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” these voices invite us:
Ladies and Gentlemen, we present today
The great historical gangster play!
Dare we enter? Maybe, maybe not: Doyle’s production sits uncomfortably astride styles, intents and concepts. It delivers on some moments while missing the full sweep of the specific historical context that gives it resonance. Harmonizing the playwright’s aims with our own contemporary reality should have been the task. This production isn’t up to it.