The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht has been given a new translation by Stephen Sharkey. It is this translation that Kevin Confoy directs in the production that is currently being presented by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at the Wild Project in New York City.
As a German exile during World War II, Brecht wrote a number of plays that sardonically excoriate through avant-garde flourishes the human potential for limitless corruption, deceit and tyranny when given absolute, unchecked power. In this play Brecht condemns the National Socialist movement through which Hitler birthed Nazism’s horrific genocide with visual projections of Hitler’s rise to power. In this production, those visual projections are used as a backdrop of remembrance to parallel fictional Chicago mobster Arturo Ui’s development. The Hitler images mirror and give meaning to Arturo Ui’s nature and being. During the arc of the story we come to understand how the gangster sub-class (Hitler and Ui) will inevitably grow to a global scale.
Brecht establishes key events which solidify how conditions ripen for murderers and thieves to legitimize themselves and become ruling elites. Like Hitler, Arturo Ui (Craig Smith) in a sometimes frightening portrayal) surrounds himself with a gang of brutes who provide the muscle to strong-arm his way into government power represented by corrupt, conflicted and compromised Dogsborough (John Lenartz). The means is to expose a scheme perpetrated by the embezzlers of “The Cauliflower Trust” who seduce Dogsborough (also in the trust) to use his position to cover for them.
Ui attempts to lure Dogsborough to his sphere of influence with a not-so-veiled threat that if he does not cave to his demands, he will leak his “dirty laundry.” When Dogsborough refuses to make a deal with Ui, he ends up on trial, which comes to nought when Ui has the witnesses against Dogsborough eliminated. Dogsborough becomes Ui’s creature so that Ui can continue to exploit opportunities to bribe and bully others with the police under his control. He uses the guise that he is defending and protecting the populace against terror and crime. Meanwhile, we understand that Ui is the terrorist; he will have murdered any and all who would incriminate him, including those thugs who had once been on his team.
On his way to legitimacy, Ui (like Hitler) eschews his “lower-class” appearance and presentation and dons a new elite image so that when he is appointed to a legitimate position of power, he looks the part. And thus director Confoy and the able cast enable us to recognize Brecht’s reality: Murder, brutality, genocide may be legalized once a criminal and his legions access and penetrate legitimate power systems – governmental and business trusts – and make them their own.
The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble production is an interesting rendition of Brecht told within the structure of a radio drama (I enjoyed watching the clever sound effects), which has moments of humor but sometimes gets in the way of the presentation’s smooth conveyance. Brecht is amazing in how he lays out the seeds for black comedy, dark irony and absurd and ridiculous outplays as he examines contorted human behavior. At times the cast under Confoy’s direction is darkly frightening and outright funny, especially when the ensemble works artfully, with balance and precision. Sometimes the farce is pushed and the production somewhat uneven. The Brechtian ironies, “in your face” throughout, at times can feel leaden. And a few times, subtle tonal shifts were eviscerated by overacting.
The menace in the play is everpresent in the comedy, the situation, the conflict, so not much is needed for the actors to convey it with authenticity. The underlying evil, the contagion that consumes everyone, is not hidden, not charming, not seductive, not insinuating. Perhaps it should be, even though this Arturo Ui is “resistible.” At worst, sometimes the actors, who have a fine potential to elucidate the twisted humanity of the characters, become caricatures. One may argue that to some extent that was Brecht’s intent. On the other hand, less is more. With less, the more authentic the feel, the greater the irony and humor to encompass the full effect of recognizing how the themes and metaphors of the play are completely synchronized with our time even to the present candidates running for office.
The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble has made a noble attempt with this production, down to the staging and costumes, lighting, and sound effects. They are to be credited with helping us appreciate Brecht’s examination of the limits of ethics in the face of brutality and savagery. Bullies are criminals; they may be opportunistic businessmen, whose greed paves the way for them to compromise their own integrity and become the prey of the Arturo Uis who are demagogues waiting in the wings like Hitler (whom Arturo Ui will become if no one stops him). And given the reins of unchecked domination, tyrants will create an oppressive new world order and force the conquered to live under it or die opposing it.
Despite some lapses in conveying the power of Brecht’s bitter, sardonic comedy, the production does clearly reveal how values of justice are upended and confusion reigns when criminals govern. Whether a Capone, a Hitler, or an Arturo Ui, a thug’s rise to power and murderous dictatorship is resistible if good men in leadership positions prevent it. Global tyranny can be prevented by those whose eyes are opened, those who are moved and willed to action. But sacrifices must be made: blood must be shed, for those who would usurp power have the will to kill.
The ultimate question which must be reconciled is this: in the conflict/war between criminals and their targets, are the targets as willing as the oppressors to die for the prize? In a zero sum game, if the little people allow criminals to gain supremacy and legitimize themselves, they will have allowed the destruction of justice, morality, and peace. Are such people willing to die to restore these lost values? If not, they will have to live under tyranny and probably die in shameful submission anyway.
The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s interesting and innovative production raises these sublime Brechtian questions. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is at The Wild Project (195 East Third Street between Avenue A and Avenue B). The production has one intermission and is running until November 13, 2016.