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The staging is simple: metal scaffolds, a few risers, wooden tables and chairs, some ragged industrial sheets of plastic, in front of an embossed red velvet curtain. A chorus of well dressed hoodlums announce, in verse, a gangster play. The villain and protagonist: Arturo Ui (Robert Sheire). Projected onto the plastic are terse phrases narrating the dysfunction of Weimar Germany as it gave way to the Third Reich. The juxtaposition tells the audience that the story is a parable about something other than Chicago.
Bertolt Brecht wrote The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in 1941 while living in the still-neutral United States, eight years after he fled Germany as a political refugee. It satirizes the rise of Hitler using the idiom of Chicagoland gangsters then popular in American cinema. (Sound designer Denise Rose alludes to the turning sprockets of the era’s film projectors throughout the evening.) Historical events like the burning of the Reichstag and the annexation of Austria are rendered small, as Arturo Ui expands his protection racket over the Windy City’s vegetable trade. Brecht intended the play for an American audience, but the script languished in a drawer and received a posthumous premiere in 1958 with the Berliner Ensemble, the company he founded once he returned to East Germany in 1949.
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The allegory opens with a parallel to the Eastern Aid scandal, in which the bankrupt landed aristocracy known as the Junkers pulled together the funds to pay off the debts on Germany’s President Paul von Hindenburg’s estate in return for government relief. The Cauliflower Trust, a consortium of vegetable wholesalers representing the Junkers, similarly pays off the political power broker Dogsborough (Joe Palka) in exchange for access to the public coffers. Meanwhile, Ui (standing in for Hitler) and his gang turn their knowledge of these corrupt deals into the political leverage and legal impunity they need to expand their protection racket over the city’s neighborhood grocers.
As Ui, Sheire traces his character from a dejected minor player to one who freely exercises political power. Along the way he seeks out acting lessons from a classical thespian (director Robert McNamara), and when the transformation is complete, Ui’s gesticulations mirror those Hitler used in his public speeches. This is just one example of the fine work of movement coaches Lee Ordeman and Kim Curtis.
Brecht, like the Marxists of his time, tended to misunderstand Nazism and fascism as merely thuggish forms of capitalism, and neither Ui nor his lieutenants exhibit the racism or the conspiracy theorizing that motivated Hitler and his followers. Despite Brecht’s first and second wives both being Jewish, his Hitler analogue does not once utter an anti-Semitic slur, so he allegorizes 1934’s Night of the Long Knives, but not 1938’s Kristallnacht. This may have also passed muster with East Germany’s communist regime, which downplayed the importance of anti-Semitism to Nazi ideology and the complicity of ordinary Germans.
As director, McNamara deftly handles the constant genre shifts necessary for staging epic theater, from the set pieces that satirize crime genre conventions, to more stylized physical theater ranging from the slapstick pas de deux between Palka’s Dogsborough and Gori Olufon’s Giuseppe Givola (Brecht’s analogue for Joseph Goebbels), to the haunting of Ui by the ghost of Ordeman’s Ernesto Roma (standing in for SA Chief-of-Staff Ernst Röhm, purged in Night of the Long Knives) in an invention seemingly inspired by Japanese butoh with its off-balance rigidity punctuated by spasms and falls.
America may not be in the clutches of a well dressed gangster with a shoulder-holstered Luger, but the poorly formed rhetoric of our slovenly president often resembles that of a movie mob boss. Arturo Ui may be didactic and Brecht’s didacticism is never not artful. If gangsters are resistible, then such artful didacticism is necessary.
To July 14 at 1333 H St. NE. $15–$45. (202) 399-7993. scenatheatre.org