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

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