Bertolt Brecht left Germany in 1933, having seen the writing on the wall and perhaps having heard the “Heil Hitler”s in his ears long before they materialized thunderously. Fearing the worst, he did what he knew to do. He wrote The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.
Journeying around Europe during the self-imposed exile, he took three weeks in 1941 to come up with The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. That was while he was waiting in Helsinki for a United States visa. For reasons undoubtedly not hard to discern, though, the play wasn’t produced until 1958 in Stuttgart—two years after Brecht’s 1956 death.
The chronology is worth noting, because Brecht intended The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui as a strict allegory of Hitler’s power usurpation. Although he set the action in Chicago and nearby Cicero, he was thinking only of Nazi Germany. (He liked placing his satires in an America he had yet to see: for example, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.)
He was especially thinking of the work’s characters as representations of Hitler’s cadre, such that Ernie Roma stood in for Ernst Rohm, Dogsborough for Paul von Hindenburg and so on. His excoriation of those figures was meant to be immediately understood by audiences then.
By 1958 those topical targets were already beginning to lose urgency, and while Brecht’s unmitigated attack remains an explosive charge at Hitler’s resistible rise, over time it has become an allegory of the rise of any scheming, mendacious, bullying tyrant—or any scheming, mendacious, bullying wannabe tyrant.
This brings us to John Doyle’s Resistible Rise of Arturo UI revival at the Classic Stage Company, which the outfit’s artistic director directed and designed. (FYI: CSC previously mounted the Brecht play in 1991.) Yes, references to Germany of the 1930s and 1940s remain in George Tabori’s translation with its proliferation of rhymed couplets (whereas Brecht wrote primarily in blank verse), and yes, many a “Sieg Heil” is blurted in voiceovers. (From where I was sitting I thought I was hearing “Sieg Higher.” Maybe I was.)
But Doyle doesn’t want anyone to miss an Arturo Ui similarity in someone as contemporary as Donald J. Trump. Just in case that point isn’t implicitly driven home, sound designer Matt Stine sends in “Lock Her Up” crowd cries as a crucial moment.
It also appears that Doyle would like to offer this Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui as a bow to the well-known Brechtian staging style. It’s blunt, confrontational. It blatantly acknowledges that actors are at work and not necessarily pretending to be taken for the persons they’re playing.
Call Doyle’s approach neo-Brechtian. The eight-member cast members tend to blare their lines as they go about illustrating how in Chicago and Cicero, the Cauliflower Trust—supposedly watching over the greengrocers in favor of whom they fight—eventually assume complete rule.
They do so under the titular Arturo Ui (Raúl Esparza returning to the New York stage after too many years away, much of them spent as Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba on Law & Order: SVU.)
Just as the play has unending potential for commenting on autocrats then, now and in the future, Brecht looks back at corrupting-power dramas, most obviously William Shakespeare’s Richard III. Ui follows Richard III’s model by ridding himself of underlings once they have served his purpose.
That’s pretty much how The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui progresses amid the Cauliflower Trust and the vegetable marketers conferring and confronting. All that palaver isn’t uninterruptedly compelling. In Doyle’s trimmed version Ui plots his slow and steady advance, but the progressing action becomes more than the least bit tedious. As played here, the proceedings are hard to follow in a manner that encourages spectators not even to want to follow.
(FYI: Brecht’s delayed play has had two Broadway productions: in 1963 for 13 performances and in 1969 for 10. Are the truncated runs telling us something?)
Possibly, the most interesting Resistible Rise element here is Ui’s origin and how he deploys it. Ui was born in Brooklyn but has departed for Chicago. (It’s never explained why.) What he hasn’t left behind is his Brooklyn accent, certainly not as Esparza portrays him. This Ui is first and foremost his Brooklyn accent. (Is this another nod to President Trump, who hails from Queens but now without anything of the New York City boroughs accent Esparza is riding? Maybe this is just another spot where Brecht was prescient.)
Though Esparza does manifest sinister leadership skills as Ui, there’s something mitigating in the accent-prominent actor/director choice. Oddly, the other actors—apparently Chicago-Cicero denizens all—never affect Chicago area accents. They’re George Abud, Eddie Cooper, Elizabeth A. Davis, Christopher Gurr, Omozé Idehenre, Mahira Kakkar and Thom Sesma. Carting folding tables and other movable furniture around and sometime only seen and heard behind the tall chain-link wall Doyle has planted upstage, they valiantly give their neo-Brechtian performances but to what avail is in question.
Doyle’s wanting to throw shade on the Trump administration is clear and commendable. Nevertheless, it’s debatable whether the busy-busy Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui—despite the often-vouchsafed opinion that it’s a masterpiece—is the play to do it with.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui opened November 14, 2018, at Classic Stage Company and runs to December 22. Tickets and Information: classicstage.org