By Bertolt Brecht, Translated by Stephen Sharkey; Directed by Kevin Confoy
Produced by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble
Off Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 11.13.16
The Wild Project,195 East 3rd Street
by Gabriella Steinberg on 10.26.16
Jim Sterling and Desmond Confoy in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
BOTTOM LINE: A practically seamless production highlighting the sneaky way evil takes power.
During a particularly scary presidential election, many are drawing comparisons to another scary period in political history. Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a very popular choice of production right now, with several different theater companies mounting this play throughout the country ahead of Election Day. The rise of Hitler is told through the allegory of a Chicago gangster, Arturo Ui, following his campaign of intimidation to control the "Cauliflower Trust" (i.e. the Prussian nobility). As presented by the Phoenix Theatre through Englishman Stephen Sharkey’s new translation, Brecht takes us through Ui/Hitler’s disposing of the opposition (Hindenburg and the last of the Austrian monarchy, ending with the Anschluss) through intimidation and violence.
Sharkey’s translation stays true to form; with mild hints at current events, he is particularly conscious of the original play’s Shakespearean bent, with couplets of language inviting us into this world and spitting us back out with an uncanny quality. Obie-winner Kevin Confoy has staged this classic piece with great attention to detail, not only in production, but in the construction of character. He is careful to keep the beat of Brechtian tone and style—naturalism is thrown out the window. Staged as a radio play that unravels into an all-out theatrical production, the Phoenix Theatre’s Arturo Ui is an incredibly satisfying examination at the stealthy ways that evil takes power.
The production is beautifully comprehensive. I was a little hesitant to see how this production was going to fare in the small Wild Project space—my assumptions were founded upon the sight of the massive amounts of radio equipment the entering audience is invited to gawk at while the cast floats about to "get ready" for a regularly scheduled broadcast. As the ensemble moves on with their story, they start to pack away the equipment in favor of a more traditionally theatrical staging (a transition that is a bit abrupt). Inviting us in through the medium of a radio play is a nice touch consistent with the Brechtian "epic theatre" genre.
When we’re in the fully-realized, fully-acted play mode, each scene is broken up by projections of historical film clips explaining what we are about to see. Whether these explanations are captioned text or images of the Nazi party as it takes over Germany, Andrew Lazarow’s video design (and Carrigan O’Brien’s shrewd dramaturgy skill) explain with a foreboding tone the significance of Brecht’s chosen allegory without condescending to us. The lighting by Tony Mulanix is superb—particularly the shadow work we see when Ui puffs up in power. However, my favorite technical element was the sound design; from the dated mics of the radio lab in the Sears Tower to the Weimaresque rendition of "Yankee Doodle" representing the Third Reich, Ellen Mandel’s work is spectacular. Her Foley carries on even after the mics of the radio studio are struck, and provides the most intimate touch to this heady play.
The performances are outstanding, with only a few moments of unconscious naturalistic overacting—it’s difficult to maintain the epic theatrical style when Americanized acting is the norm. But every performance makes great strides to tie our current political affairs into this allegory. Played with great finesse and wonderful scariness by Craig Smith, Ui is frightening with a staunch conviction and nuanced physicality. He adopts Hitler’s rumored stutter, and the out-of-control tiny hands we’re so familiar with at this point in the election cycle. I was also impressed with the tortured soul bestowed upon Dogsborough (representing Hindenburg) by John Lenartz. He and the other actors (save Smith) play multiple characters with tremendous talent.
The limerick that ends the play is one of chilling familiarity; Ui, out of character, speaks the last line: "Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again." No truer words spoken than these, and to hear them again at this time in our current political climate is very fortunate indeed. After a two-hour and 20-minute show, one leaves the theatre sorrowful for those affected by Ui in the play’s fictional rendering, and those affected by resistible evil every day. Yet one can also feel proud that we are free enough to explore these atrocities with artistic integrity, and the Phoenix Theatre's production does just that.
(The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui plays at the Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street, through November 13, 2016. The running time is two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 8; Wednesdays at 2 and 8; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $25 and are available at phoenixtheatreensemble.org.)
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Stephen Sharkey. Directed by Kevin Confoy. Assistant Direction/Dramaturgy by Carrigan O’Brian. Lighting Design by Tony Mulanix. Video Design by Andrew Lazarow. Sound Design by Ellen Mandel. Costume Design by Debbi Hobson. Stage Manager is Irene Lazaridis.
The cast is Desmond Confoy, Sergio Fuenzalida, John Lenartz, Zach Lusk, Ellen Mandel, Craig Smith, Elise Stone, Jim Sterling, Antonio Suarez, and Josh Tyson.