Colorful, dynamic, vivid, fascinating. These words capture the staging and playing of Ralph Manheim’s translation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Urturo Ui at Blue Barn Theatre. Despite all that admirable non-stop energy though, the details underneath the surface hammer on too long and can easily bewilder an audience.
Brecht didn’t make it easy. And didn’t intend to. As you can read in Bluebarn’s excellent and useful program notes, or might already be aware, his deliberate didacticism aimed to both estrange and engage audiences at the same time. Such duality can be confusing.
During exile in 1941, the German playwright sought to satirize Hitler’s ascent to power in his homeland at the very time when that power was in full sway. The title calls attention to the major point: citizen acquiescence instead of resistance. Consequently, the developments are a thinly disguised retelling of recent history. It helps if you come prepared with the knowledge of what truly happened. Although, for this production, a series of film projections with accompanying short narrative descriptions provide the audience with some idea as everything flashes by. If you concentrate. That’s Brecht for you. He didn’t intend to make it easy. He wanted to provoke.
Many of us tend to think that satire must be comic. And Bluebarn, in calling this work “witty” and “a spoof” appears to suggest so. But, except for one potentially hilarious scene, deadly earnestness rules.
In this nearly three-hour experience with rapid-fire, often strident delivery of speeches, this might suggest that story developments take precedence over text, and/or that sitzfleisch might become numb enduring a lot of well-paced words. Yet understanding how and why things happen would seem to be essential. Words, phrases and inflections get lost in the rush. Here director Susan Clement-Toberer and her hard-working cast do a disservice. On the other hand, what transpires, how people behave, act and react always remains clear, including her imaginative visual underscoring.
Ui is a small-time Chicago gangster who becomes involved in the grocery wholesale business. With the aid and support of several nasty henchmen, through manipulations, deception, threats and murders, he gradually takes over the trade, even moving on to the nearby town of Cicero. He becomes unstoppable. The big boss.
Especially evoked in this script are Hitler and his henchmen Göring, Goebbels and Röhm (Ui, Giri, Givola and Roma) who, among many machinations, subvert leading businessman Dogsborough (real-life German president Paul von Hindenburg). A factory belonging to Hook, a resistant greengrocer, burns down and a sham trial gives the gangsters, evidently the actual arsonists, greater ascendency. Violence against anyone who is against them escalates. Giri, Givola and Roma tussle over control and power. Ui has Roma killed. Cicero newspaperman Ignatius Dullfleet is murdered over the paper’s opposition to the gangsters. And so on. Terrified Chicago and Cicero greengrocers agree to support Ui.
For considerable time in the first act, talk outweighs action, some of it exposition, some of it apparently revealing the thoughts and ideas of the principal characters. There Brecht assigns too much questionable time and space to Dogsborough. Then an extended trial scene compellingly and successfully takes the spotlight. Thereafter the second act spirals along with solidly equal intensity, as violence proliferates.
All of these events …and more … parallel actual history. The script actually calls for written signs to identify them. Such potentially useful visual aids are replaced in this production by having the words spoken by cast member Paul Boesing. But Toberer generally does not have him address the audience directly, which could have been more instructive, as well as consistent with a standard Brecht device, breaking the fourth wall, as program notes point out.
Boesing also appears in a famed scene which is usually considered comic, as a down-at-the- heels actor of questionable talent being hired to teach Ui how to make himself look more dramatic to the public. Toberer’s take suggests something more serious, a valid but disappointing choice. Trying to get Ui to perform Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech could be truly funny were Ui clumsy and his teacher a hopeless ham. That doesn’t happen. Thereafter Toberer does stage well Ui’s transition towards acquiring a more public persona, even though not having Nils Haaland’s Ui use those learned postures thereafter, a puzzling oversight.
Haaland’s performance comes across exceptionally well with believable sleaziness. He also gives solid and clear meaning to what he says. His Ui successfully becomes more volatile and dynamic as everything progresses, albeit lacking the ugly menace inherent in the role.
Daena Schweiger stands out significantly as Giri, a replica of overstuffed and self-amused Göring, while Jens Rasmussen ably makes Goebbels-like Givola oily and serpentine. Most other performers do well in their often-multiple roles, even though they don’t create very clear and distinctive definitions that could have enhanced the experience.
And that brings up the question of how to perform Brecht. That is, how should characters be interpreted consistently? With something almost genuine, as most often in these performances, or as caricatures, as in the trial scene? Certainly a suggestion of unreality is implied by sending up Nazis as cartoon-like gangland goons, whether actual ones or Hollywood versions. Such problematic choices are among many confronting a stage director.
Toberer should be praised for taking on the challenge and for giving us a chance to experience this play. Her choice comes across best in creating a compelling spectacle in which the ensemble plays together superbly.
A further question with Brecht remains: how to have audiences want to stand back, to ponder and consider his messages rather than become immersed and too involved—something that Brecht intended. Yet, he does want us to become involved on another level, involved in our society, to not stand back when dangerous people capture the public imagination. To question. To resist. Sound contemporary?
By the way, I found this on-line link to be very useful in understanding the essence of what happens in each scene and how it relates to what happened in Germany. http://www.dramaonlinelibrary.com/books/the-resistible-rise-of-arturo-ui-iid-12134/do-9781408167984-div-00000004. Reading it beforehand might be considered some kind of a plot spoiler, but I think Brecht, and possibly Toberer, would view it as a valuable way to attend with an open and receptive mind.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is performed through Oct 16 at Blue Barn Theatre, 1106 South 10th St. Thurs.- Sat.: 7:30 p.m., Sun: 6 p.m. Tickets: $25-$30. www.bluebarn.org