References to President Donald Trump in the current production become particularly noticeable near the end, when Raúl Esparza, who’s playing Ui, dons a red tie and rants of “Lock her up” can be heard at an invisible rally, while Ui is giving a Hitler-like rant of his own. (The effective sound design is by Matt Stine.)
Brecht wrote Arturo Ui in 1941 while he was living in Finland, in exile from Nazi Germany, and awaiting his move to the United States. Though it’s written as a farce, in the play Brecht imagines a U.S. every bit as fascistic as the Germany he just fled, and he sets the play in Chicago.
While Ui is said to be the most “notorious of all gangsters,” Ui himself claims that Dogsborough, who’s “pushing eighty,” is “the father of Chicago… Whoever is attacking him–or me–attacks the town, the state, the Constitution!”
If Brecht is something of a minimalist playwright, he has met his match in John Doyle who has directed and designed the current production without any fuss. With a large, cage-like linked wall in the rear of the space–from which the players emerge and retreat during the course of two hours–there’s little else on stage beyond a couple of folding tables and some chairs.
And while the lights are sometimes blinding, making it hard to see the players, it’s also frequently so dark that they appear obscured, or worse still, become disembodied voices. Indeed, there’s so much going on with the lights–or not–that two people (Jane Cox and Tess James) are credited with the lighting design in the digital program, which is the only way the program is available. In so many respects, this can be seen as a user-unfriendly production.
Under the circumstances, it’s difficult to judge the performance. But Esparza, who has worked with Doyle before, can be both fierce and vulnerable as Ui. His best–and funniest–moments are when the “Actor” is teaching Ui the “classical style.” “Hold your head up,” she instructs. “Let your toes touch the ground first…. Except you don’t know what to do with your hands. It might be best if you placed them in front of your genitals.”
The rest of the cast includes George Abud as Clark and Ragg, Eddie Cooper as Roma, Elizabeth A. Davis as Giri, Christopher Gurr as Dogsborough, Omoze Idehenre as O’Casey and Betty Dogfleet, Mahira Kakkar as Flake and Dockdaisy, and Thom Sesma as Givola. And they all perform in what might be termed minimalist costumes, which are simply everyday clothes, designed by Ann Hould-Ward.
What gets lost for all of the minimalism is the play itself. As translated by George Tabori, certain sections are told in rhyme, as with the opening line: “Ladies and gentlemen, we present today/the great historical gangster play.” Ui is first and last a gangster, as are most of the other characters we meet, not to mention the Fuhrer. As one of them says, “There are so many men like Ui these days,” and I guess part of Brecht’s point is that there always were and always will be. Indeed, the script includes many references to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, himself an autocrat, like all the ones that followed.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (through December 22, 2018)
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.classicstage.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission