The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Directed by Shawn Hainsworth
At the Loeb Mainstage
Through this weekend
AT THE beginning of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Professor Richard Hunt, who teaches a Core course called "Culture and Society in Weimar and Nazi Germany," delivers a short lecture on Brecht, while a rogues gallery of Nazi thugs, whom Brecht's parable has transformed into Chicago gangsters, listens in bemusement. "It is a very serious play. It is also a very funny play," Hunt says of Ui itself. Then one of the gangsters motions Hunt offstage and shoots him.
As Hunt says, Ui is both serious and funny. And as his sudden demise suggests, it is not subtle. Almost all the characters are none-too-thinly veiled portraits of real figures in the Nazi hierarchy. Hitler becomes Arturo Ui (Chad Raphael), Ernst Roehm becomes Ernesto Roma (Jeff Alexander), Hermann Goering becomes Emanuele Giri (David Schrag) and Joseph Goebbels becomes Giuseppi Givola (Anthony Korotko Hatch).
Brecht's analogy, while apt, isn't always historically accurate. Brecht means for Ui's blackmailing Dogsborough (David Cope) for power in Chicago to imply that Hitler blackmailed President Hindenburg in order to become chancellor, which is not necessarily true. Also, Brecht's meticulous parallel fails to take into account anti-Semitism.
Most damning is Brecht's indictment of the German people for refusing to accept responsibility for Hitler's rise. Two or three characters argue passionately, presumably in Brecht's voice, that if more people would speak out against injustice, they could resist the rise of such as Ui.
Ui does have force, treachery and charisma on his side. There is a funny scene in which a Shakespearean actor (Richard Howells) coaches Ui in speech and movement by running him through Marc Antony's speech in Julius Caesar. At first Raphael's imitation of Howells' already exaggerated enunciation and movement makes him look like John Cleese's Minister of Silly Walks. But the walk soon becomes an obscene goosestep, the speech a guttural shout. Raphael must have watched films of old Hitler speeches, because he has der Fuhrer's mannerisms, voice and gestures down pat. He is truly frightening to watch.
There are other allusions to Shakespeare. Besides the glib Marc Antony, Ui is also supposed to remind us, we are told at the beginning, of Richard III. Moreover, the entire play is written in blank verse, with rhymed couplets at the end of each scene.
Roland Tec's music, composed for this production, tends to work against the play's attempt to evoke '20s Chicago. Though jazzy, it sounds too much like '40s bebop. The scat singing between scenes is clearly not spontaneous. Not that Tec's music should sound like frequent Brecht collaborator Kurt Weill's, but it adds little and even detracts from the atmosphere.
Many of the performances are good imitations of old gangster film types. Schrag is the little tough guy, like Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney. Hatch is slimy and smooth-talking. Alexander shows Roma's fierce loyalty to Ui, even when Ui betrays him, but he is also believably vengeful when he returns as a ghost to haunt Ui, a la Banquo.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a daunting play, more because of its length (two hours and 45 minutes), its large cast of characters, its blank verse and its strange music, rather than its theme. Still, it is worth seeing for its acting. And it proves the old adage: You can get more with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word.