Bertolt Brecht revivals are fairly common. But they rarely have the integrity and fevered energy of the current production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui from the Classic Stage Company. A fired-up Raúl Esparza heads up a splendid cast in Brecht’s poetic fable of a voluble Chicago mob boss who builds a grocery protection racket that explicitly parallels Adolf Hitler’s ascendance.
Directors sometimes have trouble managing Brecht’s stylized and self-conscious theatricality. But company artistic director John Doyle steers the cast to fully live the script’s semi-absurdist sensibility. We meet Arturo down on his luck, insecure, feeling disrespected and out of place, a self-described “simple son of Brooklyn” (a “country boy” too, absurdly).
Accentuating Arturo’s transplant status, Esparza plays up an old-time New York accent. “These creeps, they talk to me like I was crap.” Christopher Gurr as mild Dogsborough, the fading Hindenburg figure, is the perfect foil. Eddie Cooper is steely-eyed as Roma, Ui’s burly lieutenant. Omozé Idehenre convinces in several very varied small roles, especially as a laborer whose unionizing dreams Ui quashes.
Mahiri Kakkar and George Abud make the expository opening scene – a discussion of the ways and means of the local cauliflower board – actually heated and gripping. That sets the table for a multi-course repast of whirling vegetable action.
To muscle in on the city’s vegetable trade Ui hires a noted Shakespearean actor to help him craft a confident persona. But in George Tabori’s icy-sharp translation, these gangsters, fixers, and corrupt officials already speak a plastic, bardic noir. (“Where are the goons of yesteryear?”)
The characters map explicitly to real figures in the Nazis’ rise; the play is indeed a parable, just as Brecht described it. And as such it rings just as true for today’s world.
All the action takes place in front of an imposing chain-link fence that serves as both backdrop and cage. So whether we’re in a conference room or Ui’s lair, it feels like an interrogation. An air of desperation hovers. Arson, murder, ghostly visitations – all seems to take place in the dark night of the soul, often lit only from disconcerting floor-level lights.
Especially brilliant is Esparza’s performance of the climactic scene, where Ui declaims Marc Antony’s famous speech from Julius Caesar. Doyle has him drop the book and glide directly into the gangster’s own words.
Murder! Butchery! Blackmail! Robbery! Fraud!…
What are the City Dads doing about it?
Nothing. These so-called honorable men –
Their honor should be made of sterner stuff! –
Are busy spinning shady business plans
And shafting honest people in the back
Instead of giving them protection.
Thus the mob boss justifies his own protection racket – Hitler’s populist/nationalist promise writ small. And thus, too, Brecht continues to speak to us today, his voice rising out of the fury of World War Two into the timelessness of the strongman.
Doyle makes much of the script’s wide comic vein. Esparza endows the mob boss with a funny-cool, hyperactive antihero magnetism. This makes his lectures comic masterpieces. In one, he explains that a worker who goes on strike “will cease to be a workingman,/And you’ll become, and I’m quoting now,/The slander of your mother’s heavy womb/Subversive sonsabitches, all of you,/And basta, I must stop you dead.” Even in translation this is Brecht at his most Brechtian, from the Richard III misquote to the street slang to the Italian-American argot. We laugh, too, at the thespian strut he learns and then persists in affecting. But, ridiculously, it’s fully effective on the other characters.
Indeed the cast has such sheer fun with the multicolored language and the speedy action that the darkness of the history the play evokes is easy to take. Like a Shakespeare play, this Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui requires well-developed attention muscles. It repays the effort with interest. It runs at Classic Stage through 22 December.