By Bob Shuman
Kevin Confoy’s staging of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui should be seen for nonpolitical reasons, even if it fits in well with attempts to paint Donald Trump as a fascist. The inflammatory descriptor probably has less to do with American conservatism and more to do with Socialism, but the media has worked hard during the last year to make the label stick. The current production, from Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, which plays in the East Village until November 13 at the Wild Project, is thoughtful, complex, and informative, not only regarding Brecht’s solidly structured Chicago gangster retelling of the rise of Hitler, but also in its appreciation of the work of Erwin Piscator, a name that may seem remote to today’s students of drama. The producer, in the vanguard of German political theatre, during the first part of the twentieth century, was a sometime collaborator of Brecht (although not on this play), who brought film into the medium and, as C. D. Innes states, “made it possible to shift viewpoints, so that the action could be extended to global scope and [allow] the ‘epic’ the ability to comment on itself.” Piscator’s innovations (both he and Brecht were Communists) included revolving and simultaneous stages, treadmills, multiple platforms, projections, placards, marionettes, simultaneous scene work, sound, and more. Obie winner Confoy, who worked with Piscator’s wife, Maria, has made this Brecht outing seem especially authentic (as well as timely with flashes of current music and even the spoutings of conservative commentator Mark Levin).
Confoy gives us a play within a play, an Art Deco radio show, with men in suits, ties, suspenders, and sometimes straw hats, and women in period blouses, dresses, and fashion (the costumes are by Debbi Hobson) telling the story of the proto-Führer, with subtitling and original music, composed by and played on the set by Ellen Mandel. His production–Andrew Lazarow has created the masterful video design—includes large, flickering slides, historical stills from the Nazi era, as well as documentary footage that compels and underscores the trajectory of Arturo Ui, a petty thug in Chicago’s vegetable trade in the 1930s. Brecht thought Charlie Chaplin was the right actor, in terms of inspiration, for his drama (Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was released in 1940 and Ui was written in 1941). Although Craig Smith plays the character realistically–the references to the cauliflower market in the script don’t seem especially funny today, if they ever did. This is probably because, instead of needing to be distanced or asked to notice irony, audiences are learning, or relearning history, in a way that previous generations would not need to.
In fact, they are thinking on at least three levels—about Germany and Chicago and about the 2016 election: The Resistible Rise of Artuo Ui is importantly about coercion and corruption, so viewers may actually be thinking less about Trump than Hillary Clinton and her dubious entanglements. Brecht also is making references to Richard III and Lady Anne and Claudius and Gertrude as he takes us, as examples, from Paul von Hindenburg’s uneasy relationship with Hitler to the Reichstag fire; from silencing of the citizenry to Jewish persecution; from the Anschluss to systematic killings. The author directly quotes “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” from Julius Caesar—and unknowingly is also setting the stage for The Godfather and brutal, violent American movies to come. Stephen Sharkey’s new translation allows Brecht, and those who wrote the script with or for him, to be heard for the memorable dialogue—Trump lovers will even hear: “He’d be a disaster,” but, unfortunately not “big league,” “boom,” or “radical Islamic terrorism” (the real new fascism). Other lines include, “Everyone rots in the end, “My name is dust,” “Hell is here,” “Can society ever be kind? Kindness is a luxury,” and the famous “the bitch that bore him [Hitler] is in heat again”—the work sees the World War II era in retrospect, as well as in the making. Tony Richardson felt that Americans didn’t accept his production of Arturo Uri in the early ‘60s because it did not have the imprimatur of the Berliner Ensemble on it—hopefully, Confoy’s work—his opening takes us seamlessly into the past and he makes crowd scenes with minimal cast–will seem close enough in spirit to gain attention. Theatregoers, in fact, may find the depth of seriousness of the evening somewhat foreign, especially if they are looking for distraction. This is dark, dangerous work, written during black times and in this sense it is especially important that it is being revived now, no matter how frightening the future may appear.
Desmond Confoy, Sergio Fuenzalida, John Lenartz, Zach Lusk, Ellen Mandel, Craig Smith, Antonio Edwards Suarez, Elise Stone, and Josh Tyson
Lighting Design is by Tony Mulanix, Video Design by Andrew Lazarow, Sound Design by Ellen Mandel, Costumes by Deborah Hobson, Stage Management by Irene Lazaridis.
The Wild Project @ 195 East 3rd Street (Avenue A and Avenue B)
Visit the Wild Project: http://thewildproject.com/performances/
Visit Phoenix Theatre Ensemble: http://www.phoenixtheatreensemble.org/
Press: Karen Greco, Craig Smith
Production photos: credit: Gerry Goodstein.
Photos from top: Craig Smith; (from l) Jim Sterling, Elise Stone, Zach Lusk; Erwin Piscator; Bertolt Brecht.
Text (c) 2016 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.