Bertolt Brecht’s play “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" is difficult to perform. The last time I remember seeing it was on Broadway with Christopher Plummer in the title role, and that was on a proscenium stage. In addition to it being a cautionary tale, it was often quite funny. Now, using George Tabori’s translation, John Doyle has staged it at the Classic Stage Company in a three-sided audience arrangement. On the fourth side is a caged portion in which the cast members reside until stepping forth when required.
The play’s prologue is spoken by the actors from inside the cage, which I think is a directorial mistake that immediately sets the dialogue apart from the audience instead of meeting us head-on. The play is set in Chicago, Brecht’s device for satirizing Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany by having the evil gangster Arturo Ui running the Chicago mob, with parallels in action and character assortment.
Along with the attempt to take over the cauliflower industry, the burning down of a warehouse via arson suggests the infamous Reichstag fire in Berlin. Various other parallels are reflected in the underworld intrigue, with Ui an obvious stand-in for Der Fuhrer. Other key figures in the Nazi rise to power are also fodder for Brecht’s satirical Chicago parallels.
The staging is awkward, with cast members having to open and set up tables, as well as closing them, and there is a lack of overall smoothness. The strongest element is the casting of Raúl Esparza as the villainous Ui, and when he dramatically gives it his all in his huge second act speech, the play rises to the occasion.
Another thing the play has going for it at this particular moment is our own sensitivity to the evil of the current Trump administration. He is not Hitler—not yet anyway—but the authoritarian warnings are in plain sight and there is reason to fear destruction of our democratic ways in his demonic attacks on the press and his encouraging right wing nationalism and violent impulses toward immigrants and others.
Brecht’s work, no matter how staged, sends a warning across the years against tyrants, and the fact that he chose to set it in an American city in which mob activity was running rampant should not be lost on us. Others in the cast include George Abud, Eddie Cooper, Elizabeth A. Davis, Christopher Gurr, Omozé Idehenre, Mahira Kakkar and Thom Sesma. At the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. Phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed November 15, 2018.