Great Brecht productions are rare beasts. His plays are about presentation more than they’re about representation, and that makes them hard to crack. They draw on vaudeville, physical comedy, old movies, and even older forms of storytelling that rely on the presence of narrators and choruses. They require actors who are both inside and, more important, outside the characters they’re bringing to life, actors who acknowledge the presence of their audiences and are playing a game with the text rather than attempting full, lived mimesis inside it. (The “epic” in the “epic theater” we often associate with Brecht refers not to scale but to a performance mode that’s more telling than it is embodying. The Greek root of epic means simply word.) But in America we love our mimesis, the more eccentric and “authentic” the better. We love giving Oscars to people who stay in character when they’re texting their co-stars, or who stand in freezing rivers gnawing on real raw bison liver while the camera rolls. Joaquin Phoenix is Johnny Cash — not Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash. We like believing and feeling; Brecht wanted us witnessing and thinking.
He also wanted us laughing, and in John Doyle’s sharp, smart, blessedly low-fi production of Brecht’s 1941 parable of fascism, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, we get to do all three. With a cast of wily, willing storytellers headed by a blisteringly good Raúl Esparza, Doyle’s Arturo Ui is a sly, fearsome sideshow, a deceptively humble, hugely exciting piece of work. The actors, dressed in monochromatic street clothes plus gangsterish fedoras and porkpies by Ann Hould-Ward, manipulate plastic rehearsal tables and metal folding chairs on an empty stage backed by a wall of industrial chain link and topped with three rows of dingy fluorescent lights (Doyle also designed the spare, potent set). Lighting designers Jane Cox and Tess James use strikingly few theatrical fixtures, opting instead for practical light sources the actors can control — a flashlight, a ghost light, construction work lights, and those fluorescents (the switches are there, in sight and in reach on the set’s upstage fence). Matt Stine’s Spartan sound design — no mood-setting or transitional music here — concentrates on a few key gestures to terrifying effect. Doyle is known for his decluttered productions (he worked with Esparza in 2006 on a stripped-down, celebrated Company), and watching his lean Arturo Ui, I was conscious of how many times I’ve seen Brecht’s plays overproduced. As with Shakespeare, they’re big shows — big ideas, big social sweep, big casts — and when theaters take them on, they’re often flagship productions. They get filled with celebrities because that’s how we prefer our classics, and fitted with exorbitant budgets, which can start to feel intrinsically wrong given the stories themselves: often parables that link greed and conscienceless capitalism to the greatest human evils.
Doyle and his company are using a wonderfully vigorous 1964 English translation by George Tabori, and the actors have a relaxed, bouncing fluency with the play’s wealth of textures and rhythms. Written in only three weeks in 1941 in Finland — while Brecht was on the run, waiting for a visa to the U.S. — Arturo Ui is a collision of high and popular style. It’s written in exuberant verse and full of winking Shakespearean references; it nods to the American gangster movie tradition and to Charlie Chaplin, Brecht’s favorite film actor, whose The Great Dictator had appeared in 1940. Its characters and situations are all direct analogues for the figures and events of Hitler’s rise to power, but Brecht, who always intended his “gangster play” as a cautionary tale for American audiences, sets the action in the mob scene of 1930s Chicago. There, a petty, pouty, murderous thug, the titular Ui, worms his way up from small-time racketeering into the legitimate, if foully corrupted, chambers of commerce and government. It’s Richard III meets Jimmy Cagney by way of the vaudeville circuit, and in the hands of Doyle and his actors, it’s both rollicking and frightening.
“Nobody talks about me anymore!” whines Ui (Esparza) near the play’s beginning. “Two months without a brawl, and 20 murders / All forgotten … / When guns are silent, so’s the goddamm Press! … It’s influence what counts and not the act, / And influence depends on bank balance. / Sometimes I feel I wanna quit.” His best friend and chief enforcer, Ernesto Roma (an excellent Eddie Cooper) — the character stands for Ernst Röhm, the head of the Nazi Brownshirts — tries to comfort his boss, but Ui’s set on feeling sorry for himself. “They shot at me!” he moans, shocked that the local law enforcement has no respect for his criminal authority. “Buy me a judge, or else I got no rights / And every time I wanna rob a bank / Some cheesy cop can shoot me full of holes.”
Esparza is on fire from word one. Even in the play’s barkerlike choral introduction, delivered by the company behind the metal fence (“You’ll see enacted by our finest actors / The underworld’s most fabled malefactors!”), there’s a thrilling combination of comedy and menace in everything from his tilted head to his dead stare to his broad “simple son of Brooklyn” accent. He practically frolics through the play’s verse — the language, with all its rhymes and flourishes, quips and quotations, is a game of double Dutch for him, and he never skips a beat. Doyle smartly pushes the tempo of the genre-rich dialogue — we want to feel a little bit behind these characters. Our heart rates rise as we sit forward in our seats, struggling to hold onto the reins as their plotting and scheming and finagling run amok. Speed — constant dizzying action, each more shockingly corrupt than the last — is one of Ui’s chief weapons. If we can’t keep up, how can we resist?
There are more than 30 characters in Brecht’s play, and Doyle’s eight actors make their leaps dexterously, switching hats as if they’re skipping stones. Elizabeth A. Davis is a knife-sharp psychopath as Giri, a gum-smacking assassin who collects the hats of her victims and stands for Hitler’s second-in-command, Hermann Göring. George Abud is a nimble, fast-talking delight as both the profit-driven Clark — a high-up in the “Cauliflower Trust,” the group of vegetable suppliers that Ui would like to stick with a protection racket — and as the scoop-seeking journalist Ragg. As Betty Dullfeet — wife of a powerful businessman in the neighboring city of Cicero, where Ui wants to expand his rule — Omozé Idehenre makes fun, slinky work of a scene of manipulative flirtation with Esparza’s gangster, and later delivers dramatically as she denounces him, Lady Anne–style, over her husband’s grave. Cooper’s Roma is a lumbering, leering heavy — good with words, but not as enamored of them as Arturo; he prefers guns — and the scene in which his grinning ghost visits his former boss is a creepy Shakespearean treat. (“The day will come,” the ghost warns his murderer, “when everyone you smashed will rise.”) So is a delicious sequence in which Ui, embarrassed by his working-class roots, seeks the tutelage of a strutting, declamatory actor (also Davis, draped in a sheet, in full Olivier mode). “He’s supposed to be real good,” says the sly, vicious Givola (Thom Sesma), Ui’s “flimflam artist,” i.e., his Joseph Goebbels. “He does them Classics.”
Ui’s attempts to learn “the grand manner” from the actor are both hilarious and — as you realize how fully every seemingly ludicrous gesture is drawn straight from Hitler — chilling. “I don’t want to look natural,” snaps Ui with a showman’s devious savvy. “I want them to notice that I’m walking in … Who the hell cares what professors think, / Or city-slickers, intellectuals. / What counts is what the little hick imagines / Bosses act like.” Esparza drops all Ui’s cool here, half spitting, half snarling the words, the devil inside him exposed.
Part of Brecht’s brilliance is to reveal the preening wannabe — the mewling, puking, insecure, sociopathic child — behind the dictator. It’s that electric jump, between comedy and atrocity, that Esparza has locked down and that the production repeatedly achieves so forcefully. It’s a bit of a Poltergeist effect: You’re watching the Marx Brothers on a staticky TV set, and all at once the static crackles and blurs, and you catch a glimpse of a Nuremberg rally. As Ui transitions from reciting Mark Antony’s Machiavellian funeral oration with the actor, to speechifying in front of Chicago’s merchants, violently sewing the very fears to which he professes the cure, Stine pipes crescendoing strains of “Sieg Heil!” into the background. These horrible excerpts from the historical record are the production’s only significant sound cues — in so many productions they might seem heavy-handed, more jarring than effective, but here they’re simply plain, awful fact. They aren’t too much, and they are more than enough.
“Business in bloom, that’s what we want, correct?” smiles Ui, teeth flashing, at the Cicero tycoon he wants to put in his pocket. What feels so present about this almost 80-year-old allegory, built in response to another monster in another time, is Brecht’s shrewd linkage of profit and greed with totalitarianism and terror. Even the fledgling Ui realizes that “influence depends on bank balance,” and by the play’s end, he’s standing behind a podium, inflated and wild-eyed, promising the purchase “of Tommy guns and hand grenades, and naturally / Some brass knuckles and rubber truncheons, too, / And new supplies of armored cars as well, / Because they’re screaming for protection everywhere!” Meanwhile, the company stands behind the fence, their hands raised and enmeshed in the chain link — they raised them in a yes “vote” for Arturo Ui, but the image tells us everything. In 1938, after Hitler invaded Austria, 98 percent of the German electorate — some terrorized, some compliant, some probably asleep and unaware — voted yes for him, too.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is at Classic Stage Company through December 22.