Bertolt Brecht wrote The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in 1941, having left Germany eight years earlier, but the play was not produced until 1958, two years after his death. Introducing the show on Lantern Theater’s opening night, director Charles McMahon said he fell in love with it nearly 30 years ago, though only now was he finally getting to it. Indeed, productions more generally, while not exactly rare, are less frequent than those for a handful of other Brecht works, including Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage and Her Children.
It’s easy to understand both the enthusiasm and the reticence. Even trying to describe Arturo Ui is daunting, but here goes…
It’s a dark satire about gangland Chicago in the 1930s that’s also a parodic riff on Shakespeare, with some but not all of it written in verse. As the timeline of its writing suggests, it’s also specifically a parable about the Nazi ascent to power, with Arturo, the ruthless, morally bankrupt but charismatic title character, serving as a doppelganger for Hitler. Various supporting characters stand in for Göring, Goebbels, and others.
If that’s not complicated enough, Brecht—who was both a playwright and a theoretician—created Arturo Ui also as a vehicle for his conception of Epic Theater. At the risk of oversimplifying a complicated and very sophisticated ideology, I’ll simply say that Brecht prescribes a highly stylized departure from naturalism in support of his famous “alienation effect:” to have an audience consider a play from an intellectual, rather than emotional, viewpoint.
McMahon’s high-energy but inconsistent production realizes some of these values better than others. In the first act especially, the show is most at home as a snappy gangland parody (I thought repeatedly of Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables). It’s very snazzily staged and designed (scenery by Nick Embree, costumes by Natalia de la Torre, lights by Drew Billau, sound by Christopher Colucci), and taken on its own terms, often enjoyable. There are especially good character turns by Brian Anthony Wilson, Frank X, and Charlie DelMarcelle.
But what stands in for Brecht’s epic style is largely a cranked-up version of gangster movie acting in the style of Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and others. Again, it’s fun on its own terms—but the result is virtually the reverse of Brecht’s intent: instead of pushing us away, it pulls us in; for better and worse, we’re charmed rather than alienated. Alongside all this, the crucial sense of the play as a parable for the rise of Hitler fades into the background.
As Arturo himself, the marvelous actor Anthony Lawton does best at treading the Brechtian fine line, with moments of real menace rising startlingly from the humor—I just wish there were more of them.
And indeed, the second act finds firmer ground—the play is taken more seriously, several performances come fully into their own (notably Mary Lee Bednarek, very compelling as Betty Dullfeet), and in the riveting last moments, the analogy to the Third Reich is finally and shatteringly clear.
In all, a sometimes rewarding but often winding road, and frankly some of the problem lies with Brecht himself. In his best work—the aforementioned Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage—his Epic Theatre principles are translated vividly into drama.
But Arturo Ui is itself bumpy, with brilliant ideas too often over-extended, and the satire ranging from ice-pick sharp to blunt. As so often with theory and practice, it’s a less than perfect marriage.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui plays through October 13th. For more information, visit the Lantern Theater Company website.