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Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 work The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a verse-heavy allegory about Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, has seldom been produced on our shores since its 1963 Broadway premiere starring Christopher Plummer (oh, to have seen that production!). Its relative rarity, and the superb performance by Raul Esparza in the title role, are the main reasons to see Classic Stage Co.’s revival directed by John Doyle (The Color Purple), working in his familiar minimalist style. This only fitfully effective production of one of Brecht’s lesser works demands considerable patience, not to mention a previous familiarity with the play.
As usual, Doyle largely forgoes visual atmosphere, setting the action on a mostly bare stage dominated by a steel fence tall enough to make Donald Trump proud (more on that later). The cast, clad in gray and black nonperiod street clothes, occasionally brings large metal folding tables on stage that they assemble as if preparing for a card game. The lighting is mainly fluorescent, which is flattering neither to the actors nor the audience.
Many of the performers in the aggressively nontraditionally cast ensemble tackle multiple roles, which doesn’t help us keep track of whom they’re playing. (On a side note, CSC is charging up to $127 a ticket for this off-Broadway production. Is it too much to ask that the company provide us with an actual program?)
Fortunately, Brecht himself took pains to clarify that the major events and characters presented on stage parallel those of the early days of the Nazis. While the script calls for projections, Doyle has the information delivered in the form of loudspeaker announcements sounding like urgent news bulletins.
The play itself is problematic in both structure and style in its depiction of the evil machinations of Arturo Ui (Esparza), a small-time Depression-era Chicago gangster who schemes to take control of the city’s cauliflower market. Such characters as Roma (Eddie Cooper), whom Arturo amusingly describes as his “social secretary,” Giri (Elizabeth A. Davis) and Givola (Thom Sesma) are broad parodies of Ernst Rohm, Hermann Goring and Joseph Goebbels, respectively, while Dogsborough (Christopher Gurr) is a stand-in for Weimar President Paul von Hindenburg, whose political weakness led to Hitler’s ascension.
The play, filled with allusions to and quotations from Shakespeare, is difficult to pull off under the best of circumstances. Doyle’s stripped-down approach, which is beginning to look like “less is less,” does it no favors. Despite the occasional visual flourish, such as the use of red flower petals to denote blood, the production lacks vivid atmosphere and feels sluggishly paced. And while all the actors are effective at one time or another, few of them are successful at carrying off all of their disparate roles.
Fortunately, there’s Esparza, making a welcome return to the NYC stage after prosecuting criminals for so many years on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. (He previously worked with Doyle to wide acclaim on the latter’s 2006 Broadway revival of Company.) The actor tears into his meaty role with gusto, delivering his lines rapid-fire fashion with a Bowery Boys accent and infusing his portrayal with generous doses of humor. Indeed, Esparza frequently induces more laughs than the script calls for, such as in his delivery of Arturo’s response when Roma informs him, “Nobody cares enough to bump you off.”
“They don’t?” his Arturo replies in a genuinely wounded tone.
His highly physical performance, which begins to incorporate such Nazi-like gestures as a half-goosestep while protectively cupping his genitals, becomes more and more menacing as the play goes on. By the time Arturo has consolidated his hold on power through violent means, his snarled declaration “Now you’re free to vote!” while delivering a Nazi salute will send chills up your spine.
Which is why Doyle didn’t need to gild the lily by including the chanted phrase “Lock her up!” during the final moments. It’s not hard to guess why CSC felt compelled to revive the play in our current political climate, but audiences don’t need to be hit over the head with Donald Trump allusions. Sadly, they come to mind all too easily. And in case they don’t, Brecht himself obliges with the warning of the play’s final line: “The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”
Venue: Classic Stage Co., New York
Cast: George Abud, Eddie Cooper, Elizabeth A. Davis, Raul Esparza, Christopher Gurr, Omoze Idehenre, Mahira Kakkar, Thom Sesma
Playwright: Bertolt Brecht, translated by George Tabori
Director and set designer: John Doyle
Costume designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting designer: Jane Cox, Tess James
Sound designer: Matt Stine
Presented by Classic Stage Co.
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