By Bertolt Brecht; Translated by Jennifer Wise; Directed by Noam Shapiro
Produced by Lyra Theater
Off Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 11.5.16
The Cave at St. George's, 209 East 16th Street
by Ran Xia on 10.29.16
Malka Wallick, Amanda Thickpenny, Alex Rafala, and Matthew Van Gessel in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Photo by Abigail Jennings.
BOTTOM LINE: Lyra Theater's superbly relevant production of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui through the lens of the Trump Campaign is a cautionary warning against the evil clown.
A parable of a dangerous tyrant is always timeless; a cautionary tale on the danger of complacency against evil is never irrelevant. However, there might never be a better time to re-tell Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui than the present. With the political turmoil and state of hysteria in the U.S., (specifically the recent creepy-clown scare), Lyra Theater exploits to its full extent the similarity between the rise of Hitler before WWII and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. The company has inherited the play’s legacy, showing its relevance and making the piece an important theatrical examination of morality. It is a true testament to what theatre-makers can, and should, do.
In the play we see a rogue individual rise to power through tricks and treachery, as well as his undeniable charisma: gangster Arturo Ui (Matthew Van Gessel) plots to take over the vegetable business in Chicago as the Cauliflower Trust faces a financial crisis. Ui offers his service to force grocers to buy surplus vegetables in exchange for a cut of the profits. The Trust refuses and turns to city councilwoman Dogsborough (Amanda Thickpenny), whose money ends up laundered by the trust as a de facto loan. An opportunist, Ui uses the scandal as leverage against Dogsborough, who in despair gets blackmailed into allowing the gangster to start a protection racket with the Trust. With Gessel’s excellent and nuanced performance, Ui's mannerisms become increasingly Trump-like over the course of the play, as Ui continues to terrorize the local vegetable retailers and gain political influence with his mob organization, eventually expanding his operation in order to take over the nation.
Although the characters speak of vegetable sales, shipyards, and warehouses, it is clear that everything becomes a metaphor for the current political environment. To make the experience more obvious, sound bites from the debates and Trump's various speeches are heard during scene changes. Brendan Boston’s set for the Trust's workspace brings the audience to a Republican campaign room with posters of “Trump for 2016,” cutouts of Reagan, and a large poster board on which is marked the number of days until the election. Throughout the play, each scene title is shown alongside phrases from Trump’s The Art of Deal, such as “think big.” These visual cues prompt parallels between Brecht's fiction and our present. In a moment of suspended reality, one of the workers tentatively puts on a clown nose, which apparently has the magical power of transforming his points of view. The device thus becomes the agent through which Ui is created as figurehead. Ui's eventual decision to leave the nose on starts the whirlwind of a play, as Dmitri Shostakovich’s waltz for the jazz suite sets the tone: outrageously over-the-top by choice, which is fitting considering our current political arena.
Director Noam Shapiro makes excellent choices to illuminate the complex story. The eight-person ensemble portrays over forty characters with astonishing clarity. For instance, Kyle Michael Yoder’s Roma, Ui's vicious yet loyal right-hand-man, flickers a Zappo throughout his presence on stage, making the sound element part of the character profile. And it’s worth mentioning that the sound design thoroughly enhances the experience: beyond accurately timed sound bites and effects, designer and composer Adrian Bridges creates a versatile soundscape with original scores throughout the play.
Another interesting element is the use of props, most of which could have been taken out of an office supply closet. Most interestingly, various kinds of staplers become firearms in this version of Ui’s world. This particular choice effectively plays into the experience of being a clown’s delusion, which is the source of Ui’s bloated sense of power. By staying behind a mask (in this case a clown’s nose), Ui plays the part of a half-witted demagogue who becomes an all-too-real threat. Like Richard III's hunchback, the clown nose becomes the defining element of Ui's charisma, but also strips him of humanity. Ui’s motivation of climbing the social ladder, like Trump’s reason to go into politics, is for no one but himself, making him as dangerous as he is ridiculous.
The Resistible Rise also shows the roots of the people’s complacency. With a comedic trial scene, the production fully exposes the extent of power that organized crime has: After Ui ‘s men commit arson to gain control over the Chicago grocers, they make Fish (Matt Biagini) the scapegoat. Fish's trial is done in the style of a surrealistic carousel-like music-chair sequence: the plaintiffs are eventually coerced into complying, and the drugged-up Fish is found guilty of a crime he cannot defend himself against. And in a solemn final moment, vegetable retailers gather once more to listen to Ui speak. While they all agree that they are waiting for “someone” to stand up against the evil, no one dares take a stand against him. In summation, Lyra Theater has created a wildly entertaining production that does the Brecht classic proud. It is superbly original and immediate, and exactly the right way to tackle the societal issues we all face today.
(The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui plays at The Cave at St. George's, 209 East 16th Street, through November 5, 2016. The running time is two hours with an intermission. Remaining performances are Wednesday through Friday at 8; and Saturday at 3 and 8. Tickets are $18 and are available at artful.ly/lyratheater. For more information visit lyratheater.org.)
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Jennifer Wise. Directed by Noam Shapiro. Production Stage Manager is Grace S. Peñaranda. Scenic Designer is Brendan Boston. Lighting Designer is Katy Atwell. Sound Designer is Adrian Bridges. Props Designer is Brett Warnke.
The cast is Matt Biagini, Aurora Heimbach, Alexander Rafala, Amanda Thickpenny, Matthew Van Gessel, Malka Wallick, Brittany N. Williams, and Kyle Michael Yoder.