by Hannah Berk
This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be read on their website here.
Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (trans. George Tabori) presents us with a familiar story: a churlish Chicago mobster slashes and wheedles his way to the top. This time, it’s the top of the city’s cauliflower game. In case that doesn’t ring a bell, Scena Theatre’s production offers up Brecht’s suggested projections, orienting us within the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany.
Each scene and its players has a direct parallel to historical events and people, and the play has an anti-fascist message to hammer home. The show is high-energy, builds a cinematic gangster world, and has moments of resonance, even if the parable lacks a nuanced consideration of fascism’s horrors.
Brecht wrote this play in 1941 after going into exile from Germany upon Hitler’s rise to power. He envisioned it for an American audience, but its first staging would actually be a posthumous one in 1958 Berlin.
It opens with a vaudevillian summary in which the ensemble lays out the plot, its major players, and establishes the play’s breakneck dialogic speed. We then meet Ui, Brecht’s Hitler analog, played by Robert Sheire as equal parts glory-hungry and insecure. He whines about his reputation, sports an ill-fitting get-up, and needs his henchmen to explain how corruption works, and yet he shrewdly pinpoints his opponents’ weaknesses and evinces a ruthless pragmatism: “When guns are silent,” he proclaims, “so’s the press!”
Ui and his gang wrest control of the Cauliflower Trust from Dogsborough (Joe Palka), a well-respected local politician tied up in some embezzlement schemes. Palka gives a mournful, conflicted performance of a man whose ethics never quite win out over self-interest. Looking out the window of his country house, he muses, “The lake looks just like silver before it’s been beaten into a dollar piece.” Dogsborough is just the first in a long line of people and institutions Ui bulldozes through on his way to power, including the justice system, despite the protests of an astounded defense attorney (Caroline Johnson).
No one seems especially drawn to Ui, other than his loyal friend Roma (Lee Ordeman); his rise is best explained by a critical mass of people choosing the path of least resistance.
This is in part a satire, and the show mostly strikes a good balance between its dark subject matter and sardonic tone. It plays up the absurdity of Ui’s insistence that grocers are in great danger (a danger he has independently and intentionally generated), and the dissonance between his self-righteous grandeur and his apparent petulance is a frequent punchline. A highlight of the show is the scene in which Ui solicits elocution coaching from a classical Shakespearian actor (director Robert McNamara). He learns to strut, gesture, and orate with excess pomp. Sheire exaggerates the awkwardness to comedic effect as his Ui gains confidence.
This moment is punctuated by an intermission and an overall tonal shift in a darker direction; sound designer Denise Rose fills the pause with an eerie mix of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” In the second act, Ui edges closer to a Richard III archetype; he is decreasingly funny, more paranoid, and quicker to kill. A sort of emotional climax to the play is his decision to have Roma executed on wrongful suspicion of disloyalty. In one of the most effective scenes, his ghost visits Ui’s dreams. Lighting designer Johnathan Alexander bathes the stage in hellish red as Ordeman tumbles, contorts, and torments the sleeping dictator.
The play is sometimes a little heavy-handed in its moralism (see the projection over a courtroom scene that reads, “Mockery of Justice”), and sometimes not hard-hitting enough. Since Brecht was writing about the ascent of Hitler more than his rule, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is absent the extremities of fascist violence. Ui’s avarice is dark, but doesn’t plumb the hatred that allows a genocide to take place, and there is no treatment of either complicity or resistance beyond a blanket assumption of human cowardice.
At a time when we are arguing over what to term the concentration camps popping up along the southern U.S. border and the real-life parallels to historical atrocities proliferate, it can feel counter-productive to toy with fatalism.
The few who make an effort to stand up to Ui are minor characters and almost immediately bend or are dispensed with. The apathetic grocers, stand-ins for the working people writ large, see through him but don’t think about organizing against him beyond throwing up their hands (literally) and imagining themselves defenseless in the face of his gang’s guns. The final tableau, Ui with one arm raised in a heil, surrounded by tentative grocers imitating the motion, strikes a chilling note. Breaking from the group, Sheire delivers Brecht’s famous concluding warning about the fascist regimes brewing as we speak. What are we going to do about it? If Ui’s rise is indeed “resistible,” it’s up to the audience to figure out how that might be.