(By American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal).
In 1941, after escaping from Germany upon Adolph Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, the influential dramatist Bertolt Brecht wrote “The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui.”. The story of a gangster in Depression-era Chicago who rises to power through violence and intimidation that preys upon the fears and weaknesses of the masses, Arturo Ui was an explicit parallel to Hitler’s own amassing of influence in post-World War I Germany.
Since its stage premiere in 1958, “The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui” has become a classic of the international stage, performed all over the world as a warning to various countries and audiences about the dangers of fascism and totalitarianism. Sadly, it is a warning that has perhaps never been more sorely needed in the United States than it is today, making this the ideal time for a production of the play.
St. Edward’s University’s production, at the Mary Moody Northern Theatre through Oct. 9, makes no bones about its politics. In his note in the program, director David Long explains, “My interest in the piece is not in the cleverly disguised history it examines but the timely political and social relevance it exposes. I continue to be struck by the overt political parallels this play examines relevant to our contemporary circumstances.”
Long’s vision of Arturo Ui is, for lack of a better term, extremely Brechtian in nature. In keeping with the dramatists belief that the stage is a place for political statements, and that the message of a play must be presented explicitly instead of hidden behind a story, this production utilizes a variety of fourth-wall breaking techniques, from direct address and random moments of music/song to stylized movements, iconic staging evoking fascist imagery, and the free transition of actors from one role to another.
The talented young cast (alongside professional actors Amy Downing and Robert Tolaro) is more than up to this challenge, with an ensemble that imbues even the smallest of roles with believable humanity and lead players who lend strength and dynamism to the production. Victoria Jimenez, as Arturo Ui (in another semi-Brechtian move, the casting is gender-blind), seethes with resentment and rage, creating a fearsome figure that belies her small frame. Robert Attal, Blake Browning, and Natalie Crane all ooze with charm, charisma, and intimidation as Uri’s lieutenants Roma, Givola, and Giri, respectively.
Although the director’s notes make this production’s connection to contemporary politics very clear, the performance itself eschews these parallels, sticking to a period-piece representation of Chicago (mostly through gorgeously detailed costume, make-up, and hair design, along with original music by Peter Stopschinski) that’s true to the original text, as translated by George Tabori.
Given the important ways “Arturo Ui” can and does comment upon our current presidential election, though, one might hope for a more explicit link to that world of contemporary politics. To be blunt (and to write something this reviewer never thought he would put in print), I wanted more Trump.
Despite that somewhat missed opportunity, though, St Edward’s production of “The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui” provides a frightening warning as to how fascism starts from the bottom and rises to the top, and how those who might stop it must stop it.