Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui - A stirring wake-up call

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

It's easy to draw parallels between Bertolt Brecht’s blistering political satire The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and the current U.S. presidential administration. Or for that matter, just about any nationalistic (i.e. “strongman”) government in existence. Yet it’s the work's quieter elements which ultimately have the most impact. As evident in the very powerful Off-Broadway production now being presented by Classic Stage Company.

In 1930s Chicago, gangsters and corrupt politicians control the city. Each faction working toward its own specific agenda, yet all united by a common goal of profit and power. At the same time, all sides know their place and which lines they can and cannot cross. Thus, when such guidelines are followed, everything runs relatively smoothly.

When an aging but respected local politician (Christopher Gurr) is used as a patsy by mobsters controlling the town's cauliflower trade, it opens the door for a thug named Arturo Ui (Raúl Esparza) to muscle his way into this particular racket. Ui, known for his rather unsavory methods - at one point he boasts of twenty murders - has been previously shunned by the town's established criminal element. They preferring a more subtler way of doing business. Ui however, quickly proves himself a force to be reckoned with. He using threats and intimidation to stop anyone who gets in his way. As well as other, more violent methods against those who would still defy him.

At the same time Ui begins building his new base of power, he also sets about making himself a so-called "man of the people". Telling those he needs to follow him exactly what they want to hear, he quickly creates a populist wave of enthusiasm in his wake; while at the same time coming up with a scapegoat on whom his followers can blame all their problems. One they can all unite against. Such as those who don't support Ui's organization when it comes to the cauliflower trade.


úl EsparRaúl Esparza
úl EsparRaúl Esparza in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui - photo by Joan Marcus
Raúl Esparza in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui . Photo by Joan Marcus

Brecht wrote this play in 1941, in response to Hitler's rise to power. This connection becoming perfectly clear thanks to various radio-style announcements made during the course of the show, which chronicle the growing fascist movement in Germany.

Despite the clear linkage between Ui and Hitler, it's the play's less showier moments which have the closest connotation to today's world. These instances proving to be much more ominous because they are happening almost without the affected characters ever being aware of them. Or if they are, they believe they will never be directly affected by such events; only other people will. As when Ui declares that people must be willing to give up some of their freedom to those they have chosen to be the protectors of that freedom. Or when another character pins all the cauliflower-related misfortunes - ones which include arson and murder - on agitators who are quite probably "foreign born". All the while holding up Ui and his crew as the ones who will take care of this particular problem. Segments like this casting a far more chilling air than other, deliberately over-the-top examples of corruption which presented in the show. Moments like an attempted prisoner interrogation by the authorities, or criminal trials that are clear miscarriages of justice from the beginning.

(L-R) Christopher Gurr, Raúl Esparzain The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Photo by Joan Marcus

Esparza is perfect in the title role. His performance showing Ui to be a completely amoral sort, with a megalomaniac's need for the limelight. One who demands complete loyalty from all who work for him, yet who will not hesitate to betray these same people if his own self-interests are threatened.

Among the standouts of the rest of this very strong cast are George Abud in his role as Clark, a gangster with a continual monotone delivery, which works quite well here; and Elizabeth A. Davis as a killer named Giri. She having a penchant for the hats of those souls she has so dispatched.

Director John Doyle shows a firm grasp of the text - as translated by George Tabori. He letting the words of the script be the star, while keeping the actual characterizations (other than Ui) to a minimum. The different characters in the play being more representations of certain situations, rather than complete individuals. Doyle also makes good use of the show's minimalist setting to help give the piece a more timeless quality; though the reminders of Hitler are ever-present.

Perhaps the most sobering thing about The Resistible Rise of Artuo Ui is that remains just as relevant today as when it was first written. With a powerful message, an indelible central character, and a final line that can't help but strike a chill into the hearts of all who hear it, this is one production that should definitely not be missed.

Featuring: George Abud (Clark/Ragg), Eddie Cooper (Roma), Elizabeth A. Davis (Giri), Raúl Esparza (Arturo Ui), Christopher Gurr (Dogsborough/Dullfeet), Omozé Idehenre, (O'Casey/Betty Dullfeet), Mahira Kakkar (Flake/Dockdaisy), Thom Sesma (Givola).

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
By Bertolt Brecht
Translated by George Tabori

Costume Design: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting Design: Jane Cox/Tess James
Sound Design: Matt Stine
Associate Scenic Design: David L. Arsenault
Associate Costume Design: Amy Price
Associate Sound Design: AJ Surasky-Ysasi
Casting: Tesley + Company/Adam Caldwell,
CSA/William Cantler, CSA/Karyn Casl, CSA
Press Representative: Blake Zidell and Associates
Production Stage Manager: Bernita Robinson
Assistant Stage Manager: Jessica Fleischman

Directed and Designed by John Doyle

Presented by Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Tickets: 212-352-3101, 866-811-4111 or
Running Time, 2 Hours, 10 Minutes, with one intermission
Closes: December 22, 2018

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Girl From the North Country - Bleak, Beautiful and Absolutely Brilliant

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

For those who have known nothing but despair for far too long, the idea of one's survival takes on an almost fervent urgency. A reality brought devastatingly home in Girl From the North Country, now at The Public Theater. Writer Conor McPherson melding his text with the songs of Bob Dylan to examine the deeply buried or long-forgotten passions of the inhabitants of a Duluth, Minnesota boarding house during the Great Depression.

It’s November of 1934 and the boarding house in question is run by Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus), who lives there with his family. Nick, who has no head for business, is barely two months away from losing the building to a bank foreclosure. A fate to which Nick is now resigned. He doing his best in the meantime to care for his wife, Elizabeth (Marie Winningham), who has suffered what appears to be a mental breakdown. Nick is also continually urging his ne’er-do-well son Gene (Colton Ryan) to find a steady job; while trying to convince his daughter Marianne (Kimber Sprawl), pregnant by someone long since vanished, to wed a much older man. Someone she does not want or love. Said union however, would ensure a future for herself and her unborn child. Nick's actions toward his children taking on an increasing air of desperation as he tries to help them the only way he knows how.

Also part of this ever-growing tableau are the various guests and long-term residents of the boarding house. Among them, Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle), a woman in love with Nick and currently awaiting a long-expected cash windfall; Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu). a bible-selling preacher; Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt), a former prize fighter recently released from prison; and Mr. Burke (Marc Kudsich) a once-prosperous factory owner who lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. Burke now trying to stay one step ahead of his creditors, with his long-suffering wife (Luba Mason) and somewhat slow-minded son (Todd Almond) in tow. 

Each of the characters are also carrying their own personal secrets, and will do almost anything to keep them hidden. Though when some are pushed to the breaking point, everyone around them becomes a potential sacrificial lamb in order to ensure their own survival.

Despite their circumstances - or more accurately, because of them - many of the characters also have a need to leave behind some kind of mark to show they passed this way. Even if it’s only an attempt to bring truth to the lies they tell themselves. Burke’s actions and statements when he tries to convince Joe to let him become his manager being a perfect example of this.

Todd Almond (center) and the cast of Girl From The North Countrywritten and directed by Conor McPherson, with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, running at the Public Theater. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

It’s the show's seamless blending of text and music which brilliantly brings the characters to life. Each of these fully-developed individuals quickly becoming far more than just an object of pity. The effect something akin to tapping directly into these people's psyches to reveal the torment within. Many longing most of all for a place and time that no longer exists. It may take a few minutes for the audience to become accustomed to this particular type of narrative structure, but by the time the third such song is introduced in this manner, one is able to easily move with the transition and perception of one scene to another.

An excellent example of these conflicting emotions can be seen in the character of Nick. Nick believing, after all he's seen and experienced, that he's no longer capable of loving anyone. At one point he even questions if he still has a soul. Yet it eventually becomes obvious that Nick does care. As do they all. It's just that some of them have gone so far past the point of redemption, there's nothing left but despair. Kudos to Bogardus in making Nick come across as someone far more than just a simple loser.

In a particularly nice touch, Tom Nelis does an excellent job as Mr. Perry, the owner of a shoe store, and Marianne’s would-be suitor. An old man, he's clearly making a fool of himself, and knows it. Yet he's quite willing to risk his pride and self-respect for the chance of a little happiness. Other standouts include Winningham, for whom fantasy seems to have become a refuge (her marriage to Nick having long since ended in all but name); Ryan, who must face losing the girl he loves (Caitlin Houlahan); and Pittu, who dreams of God and a perfect world, but who is forced to make his way amidst the gullibility and failings of man.

(L-R) Caitlin Houlahan and Colton Ryan in "Girl From the North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson, with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, running at the Public Theater. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

The score is exquisite, with poetry of Dylan's lyrics never more evident. In many ways, it's as if one is hearing these songs for the first time. The scenarios and accompanying music such a perfect fit, it feels like they've always belonged together.

McPherson shows the same sure-handedness with his direction that he does with his writing. The result being a smooth flowing presentation with not a single bit of business feeling out of place, extraneous or tacked on. Each character is also given their own chance to shine, so to speak, as the story spins toward its conclusion.

Rae Smith’s set design is excellent. The pieces and backdrops calling to mind the time and era depicted. Also quite good is the on-stage orchestra. Several of the cast taking turns on one instrument or another during the performance. A process which, unlike other shows that have used this method, doesn't take a single thing away from the overall effect, but rather, helps add to it.

Girl From the North Country (also the title of a Dylan song) offers a heartbreaking look at those who have lost what they care about the most, and who are desperately trying to begin again. If such a time is truly possible. It's an experience which stays with you long after you leave the theatre.

Featuring: Todd Almond (Elias Burke), Jeannette Bayardelle (Mrs. Neilsen), Stephen Bogardus (Nick Laine), Sydney James Harcourt (Joe Scott), Matthew Frederick Harris (Ensemble), Caitlin Houlahan (Kate Draper), Robert Joy (Dr. Walker), Marc Kudisch (Mr. Burke), Luba Mason (Mrs. Burke), Tom Nelis (Mr. Perry), David Pittu (Reverend Marlowe), Colton Ryan (Gene Laine), Kimber Sprawl (Marianne Laine), Rachel Stern (Ensemble). Chelsea Lee Williams (Ensemble), Mare Winningham (Elizabeth Laine).

Girl from the North Country
Music & Lyrics by Bob Dylan
Scenic & Costume Design: Rae Smith
Lighting Design: Mark Henderson
Sound Design: Simon Baker
Orchestrator, Arranger & Music Supervisor: Simon Hale
Additional Arrangements: Simon Hale, Conor McPherson
Movement Director: Lucy Hind
Fight Director: Unkledave's Fight-House
Music Coordinator: Dean Sharenow
Music Director: Marco Paguia
Production Stage Manager: Arthur Gaffin
Stage Manager: Jeff Brancato
Fight and Dance Captain: John Schiappa
Written and Directed by Conor McPherson

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Avenue
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or
Running time Two Hours, 20 minutes one intermission
Closes: December 23, 2018

Waiting for Godot - The Messages Still Resonate

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

“Extraordinary the tricks that memory plays”, a character exclaims in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. One would be hard pressed to find a truer statement. Especially here, as recollections play a central part in this classic tragicomedy. The work being given a very fine revival by Druid Theatre as part of
Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival.

As the show begins, Vladimir (Marty Rea) and Estragon (Aaron Monaghan) are standing in a rather empty setting, with only a barren tree and a boulder big enough for them to sit on to be seen. It soon becomes apparent these two men have long since fallen on hard times. They now existing on the fringes of society. Vladimir, the more intellectual of the two, continually tries to find ways to keep their spirits up; while Estragon, who can best be described as a defeated realist, tends to forget more than he remembers and would just like to find some peace in the world – either through sleep or death. Estragon does however, remember when pain is afflicted upon him. Though he’s not always sure by who or when.

Vladimir and Estragon’s one apparent hope of salvation is the mysterious Mr. Godot. This is the reason the two are waiting at this spot, and why they will continue to do so until he appears. Though exactly when that auspicious moment will occur is a matter of conjecture. Until then, they remain trapped in a cycle of passive waiting. They basically repeating the actions of the previous day, albeit with certain differences.

A true testament to the staying power of any theatrical work is its timeless quality and openness to interpretation. Director Garry Hynes and movement director Nick Winston tapping into both in this production, which emphasizes its potential for humor, as well as various phrasings in the Beckett text. Bits of physical comedy abound here, particularly in the movements of Vladimir. Rea giving extra emphasis to his character’s walk and gestures. He at times bouncing about rather than simply moving. Monaghan is usually more subdued as Estragon, but does get in several nice comic moments. Especially when trying to pull his boots off. Or put them on.

(L-R) Mary Rea as Vladimar and Aaron Monaghan as Estragon in Druid's production of "Waiting For Godot" by Samuel Beckett.  Directed by Garry Hynes. Photo Credit: Matthew Thompson

Exactly who Vladimir and Estragon are can be interpreted in many ways, as can just about everything else in the play. However certain key words and phrases do crop up, which help to define them. Estragon says at one point that they’ve lost their rights. Vladimir immediately correcting him, saying “we got rid of them”. This exchange having a somewhat chilling connotation that can easily be applicable to today's world. Where those too content with the way things are, find themselves unprepared when change appears. There’s also a moment when Estragon tells his friend, in response to a query “don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer”. Thus showing how these two prefer to stay on the edge of events, rather than becoming directly involved in them. This attitude even extending to the possibilities of suicide. Estragon often contemplating the two killing themselves, with Vladimir continually talking him out of it. Not that Vladimir doesn’t think the idea has merit. It’s just that they never seem to have the necessary equipment to carry out Estragon’s plan.

Another theme present in the play is the need to affirm one’s one own existence. Vladimir drives this point home most effectively when, after surrendering to a moment of despair, he asks a Boy (Nathan Reid), who has come to deliver a message from Godot, to “tell him that you saw me”. This air of hopelessness popping up again and again throughout the story. In a nice twist of irony, it is the more fatalistic Estragon who occasionally suggests the two leave this place and start afresh somewhere else, only to have Vladimir always remind him why they cannot. At least not yet.

(L-R) Marty Rea as Vladimir and Aaron Monaghan as Estragon in Druid's "Waiting For Godot" by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Garry Hynes. Photo Credit: Matthew Thompson

Monaghan and Rea have a comfortable chemistry with one another, and one can easily believe their characters have been together for fifty years. Also quite good are Rory Nolan and Garrett Lombard, who appear as Pozzo, a well-to-do-sort, and his ironically-named servant Lucky. Pozzo clearly a parody of an overstuffed and entitled ruling class, yet completely dependent on Lucky for his own survival. At the same time Lucky, despite being treated horribly by Pozzo for so long, simply refuses to leave him because he can no longer conceive of any other form of existence. It’s a situation Vladimir and Estragon are also heading for if they're not careful. Interestingly, there are moments when Pozzo and Lucky so fully take the center stage, Vladimir and Estragon become little more than observers in the production.

The set by Francis O’Connor is bleak, bare and perfectly matches the story’s overall atmosphere. O’Connor’s costumes for the characters work quite well, particularly the black outfits worn by Vladimir and Estragon. Also perfectly integrated into the piece is the alternatively stark and subdued lighting by James F. Ingalls, and the sound design by Gregory Clarke.

Offering a thought-provoking look at the dangers of having one’s fate being determined by others, this production of Waiting for Godot makes for quite the illuminating experience.

Featuring: Garrett Lombard (Lucky), Aaron Monaghan (Estragon), Rory Nolan (Pozzo), Marty Rea (Vladimir), Jaden Pace/Nathan Reid (Boy).

Waiting for Godot

By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Garry Hynes
Produced by Druid
Francis O’Connor: Set and Costume Design
James F. Ingalls: Lighting Design
Gregory Clarke: Sound Design
Nick Winston: Movement Director

Presented at the Gerald F. Lynch Theater at John Jay College
524 West 59th Street
Tickets: 212-721-6500 or
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes, with one intermission
Closes: November 13, 2018