There’s a reason we think of Hitler as a gangster, and it’s not just that Churchill wanted to fry him in an electric chair: Back in the early ’40s, Bertolt Brecht satirized Der Führer good and solid in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a lurid, ludicrous tale about a Chicago cauliflower monopoly and the Bronx-born thug who schemes to dominate it. It’s a flashy thing, dressed up in blank verse and broad-shouldered pinstripes, a bullets-and-ballots comedy with a black, black heart—and Christopher Gallu’s jazzy romp of a production for Catalyst Theater turns chilling just when you’ve been snookered into laughing at it.
A cheat-sheet on the parallels, in case you don’t catch the clues in the newsreels and projected titles that Mark Anduss paints so evocatively onto Giorgos Tsappas’ gunmetal-gray set: Arturo Ui, that “humble, unemployed son of the Bronx” who’s turned up in town and started squeezing the vegetable cartel for protection money, is Brecht’s ersatz Hitler—but you’ll deduce that from Scot McKenzie’s dapper little mustache, no? The greengrocer cartel, which learns to see Ui’s loyal muscle boys (read: brownshirts) as just the tool to help it extract concessions from the government, stands in more or less for the Prussian Junkers and the Ruhr industrialists of the Weimar Republic, who bought Hindenburg’s favors and helped create the political room that let Hitler strong-arm the old man. President Hindenburg himself? That would be Grady Weatherford’s “Honest, incorruptible Old Dogsborough,” city councilman and pillar of society, at least until the veggie-tarts sweet-talk him into a sweetheart investment in a shipyard—which just happens to need a honkin’ loan from the city treasury. Meanwhile John Tweel’s Ernesto Roma, Ui’s trusty sidekick, looks a lot like Ernst Röhm, stormtrooper commander and die-hard socialist, whose pro-worker, anti-business stance doesn’t play well once the high-rolling high-fiber types have consolidated their position—so when rising factionalism forces him to face off against rival Ui henchman Giuseppe Givola (Andrew Price as the show’s Goebbels figure) and compete for Ui’s loyalty, you know who’ll end up full of holes.
There’s much more, of course—Cicero, the outlying town Ui eyes after Chicago’s markets are firmly under control, makes a wry equivalent for Austria—but you’ll figure it out. And what’s most rewarding about Gallu’s lean, hungry production isn’t the reductive cleverness of Brecht’s conceit, anyway: It’s the rapacious way his eight (count ’em, just eight!) actors go after the dozens of parts, the sheer confidence of the stylistic stamp Gallu has applied, the charcoal lights and the shadow play, the hard-boiled, hard-drinking molls (Monalisa Arias is a knockout, not to mention a stitch) and the physical precision of the quick-change games.
Pretty much everyone’s doing superb work, but let’s single out Weatherford, not just for his comically feeble Dogsborough but for his hysterically, haplessly piscine Fish (a hapless homeless guy who gets drugged, framed, railroaded, and executed for an Ui-orchestrated crime meant to parallel the burning of the Reichstag). Let’s pet Price a little, too, for his magnetically malevolent Givola, and for the fat, easy comedy of his drunken Actor (even if he doesn’t find much of the pathos that ought to haunt the latter). Let us now praise Jason McCool, as well, for the sweet dimness of his Young Dogsborough and the prim obtuseness of the books-cooking accountant Bowl, and of course Scott McCormick—not least because his fire-breathing Giri (the hat-stealing whack-job who, like a good Goering doppelgänger, handles most of Ui’s whack jobs) would probably kill us if we didn’t.
They all play handfuls of others in addition—and yet they’re all pikers, terrific and versatile and chameleonic as they are, next to McKenzie’s fiercely controlled Arturo Ui, a complicated little knot of a man whose insecurities and dark moods figure as large in this chronicle as his ambitions. Brecht lets him talk plenty about both, but Gallu has McKenzie acting the bejeezus out of the former, and the result is a picture of a tyrant that dovetails convincingly with recently in-vogue arguments about a manic-depressive Hitler.
Besides which, it’s downright thrilling, both in the sequence that finds the unpolished Ui learning rhetoric, quick-study style, from that hammy old Actor’s rendition of Marc Antony’s funeral speech and in the Richard III–style seduction of a slaughtered merchant’s widow (a soulful Elizabeth Richards), and most chillingly in the climactic address in which Ui sets his sights on the rest of the American landscape. McKenzie, by that time, has disappeared into Ui, and the nervous, uncertain Ui of Act 1 has disappeared into some monstrous new self-created thing who speaks with Hitler’s cadences and gesticulates with his constipated fury, and in the close quarters of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop space, it’s both hilarious and horrifying to watch.
A rat would point out that at least one of the few stretches of rhyming verse (a double dialogue involving the Cicero Anschluss) drags a bit, and that once or twice Tsappas’ modular set proves a little too clever for the cast members charged with shifting its pieces; a stand-up guy would argue that those things ought to smooth themselves out pretty quickly, and besides there’s always the scrappy noise of the live band (Arias, McCool, and Price again, whaling away in various combinations on trumpet, drums, and piano) to punch up the energy.
And though the rats win, inevitably, in Arturo Ui, Brecht’s finger-wagging epilogue (served up with a slash of a smile by McKenzie after the curtain call) insists that the stand-up guys can make a difference the next time a grabby little Austrian or a pushy little Bronx bastard climbs out from under his rock. So go see it, and get yourself ready.
Twelve Angry Men roars and rollicks a bit, too, in its own distinctive way, but what really makes Reginald Rose’s sturdy old chestnut such a kick is the sheer wealth of character the Roundabout Theatre’s touring production serves up. In the jury room, sweating the details as they try to convince good-guy Juror No. 8 to let the bastard fry, a handful of blue-collar types (a painter, a garage-owner) line up alongside a batch of pencil-pushers (a stockbroker, an ad guy) behind the proposition that it’s an open-and-shut case, so let’s get this over and get to the ball game.
Except it’s not, of course, and they can’t: First produced as a TV drama in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement (the classic Sidney Lumet film came three years later), the tale’s an unabashed object lesson on prejudice and critical thinking, assumptions and self-examination, so you can count on pretty much every “fact” turning out to be something less than plain after No. 8 gets his teeth into it. But if the author’s allegiances are too plain to make for dramatic subtlety, and if his dialogue sometimes sounds jarringly of its day, his taut plotting (the show clocks in at a sinewy 95 intermissionless minutes) makes Twelve Angry Men a hell of an entertainment—and Scott Ellis stages it so muscularly and with such clarity that you stop making apologies for the play and just enjoy it.
At least up until that last perilous precipice, when the rageful holdout (that would be Juror No. 3) collapses in a welter of tears at a gentle word from Richard Thomas’ No. 8. Only a consummately gifted actor could make the moment work, and he’d have to be working at it, so maybe it’s no surprise that the air goes out of this staging when Randle Mell bulldozes his way through that climax.
But even then, you’ve seen the end coming for a while, so it’s just as well—and there’s enough chewy scene-making in what comes before to make the show feel perfectly satisfying. Oh, and yes: George Wendt, he of the Cheers barstool, perches in the chair of Juror No. 1, the foreman. He does a fine, low-key job of it, too.CP