- The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,
- by Bertold Brecht
- Produced by Catalyst Theater Company
- Reviewed by Tim Treanor
For Bertold Brecht, theater was always a sort of sermonette disguised as a circus act. When he was at his most speculative and general – Threepenny Opera comes to mind – his plays were like the planet Jupiter, huge and cold and gaseous. But when he was specific, as he was in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, he was ingenuity personified, and his work approached high art. This is a gorgeous play, and Catalyst’s production does it full justice.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t a sermonette disguised as a circus act. It’s just that we can understand the sermonette, and the circus act is of exceptionally high caliber – full of grand poetry and gaudy, sweeping jazz notes, raucous and swell.
Arturo Ui (Scot McKenzie), a Chicago thug with a striking resemblance to Adolph Hitler, seeks to control the Chicago cauliflower trade. With his deputy thug Roma (John Tweel) he pays a call on councilman Dogsborough (Grady Weatherford), a man of great and unquestioned probity. He begs the councilman to intervene in his effort to provide security to the vegetable dealers of Chicago – security they neither want nor, until this moment, need. Dogsborough adamantly refuses. Then Ui reveals his secret – he knows that Dogsborough is the secret owner of the local shipyard, to whose benefit a Dogsborough-sponsored loan has just passed – and the council is now investigating the loan. Unless Dogsborough casts his lot with Ui, Ui will broadcast the councilman’s self-dealing to his colleagues. Dogsborough surrenders.
And things just get worse. Ui, aided by his chief lieutenants Givola (Andrew Price) and Giri (Scott McCormick) – the latter a ruthless killer who gleefully acquires his victim’s hats after the act – monopolizes the cauliflower trade in Chicago, and then moves on to Cicero, Illinois. He rubs out the honest Dullfeet (Tweel again) and, in a scene startlingly reminiscent of the first Act of Richard III, overwhelms Dullfeet’s widow (Elizabeth Richards).
If this seems to retell the story of Hitler’s rise to power, the coincidence is entirely intentional. Resistible Rise is Brechts’ re-imagination of Hitler as a gangster – an entirely plausible comparison, given der Füher’s origins and the brownshirts who supported his rise to power. Ui brings the gangster’s gifts – the promise of mercy, even respect, when the possibility of annihilation looms. Of course, as Dullfeet learned – briefly – mercy and respect were only temporary.
The work of Catalyst’s eight-person ensemble is simply superb. Every actor plays at least two roles; this is the Brecht tradition, and teaching. That each of them achieves such extraordinary separation, from role to role, is a tribute not so much to Brecht as to director Christopher Gullu. Gallu has his cast run through this script at a joyful, glorious pace, losing not a moment of meaning but so exuberant that it is impossible not to be pulled along, notwithstanding the horrifying meaning. The extraordinary doubling and tripling of roles reaches its apex when McCormick, playing the maniacal Giri and the poor sodden witness Hook, literally blinds himself. McCormick, whose voice is so resonant that a telephone must seem superfluous to him, is magnificent in these disparate roles.
But – so is Price, who does a hilarious turn as a dipsomaniacal actor engaged to make Ui more dramatic; or McCool, who brings great specificity to the role of an anxiety-driven Cauliflower Trust Bureaucrat, or McKenzie, who is a perspiration-filled model of the smoldering, rageful tyrant, every muscle seemingly bent in obedience to an iron will, or Monalisa Arias, captivating in a half-dozen roles, or – anyone, in this astonishing and delightful production. Brecht, old communist that he was, would be pleased that such a quality production of his work is available for ten bucks.
Gallu should be proud of what he has done, and in particular of his decision to parallel developments within the play with headlines from the world of Nazi Germany, broadcast on the revolving backdrops of this ever-changing set. Brecht’s audiences – Germans, and Americans, of the fourth decade of the twentieth century – understood the parallels between his story and history. I did not, and was grateful for the sermonette.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui runs at Catalyst Theater, 545 7th Street SE, Thursdays through Saturdays until November 4. All shows at 7.30 with an additional matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturdays. All tickets $10.