Phoenix Theatre Ensemble revives a fascist satire that still proves relevant today.
Photo by Gerry Goodstein
It's 1930s Chicago, and in the midst of the Great Depression, the vegetable trade is struggling to survive. The Cauliflower Trust receives a loan from the city to extend the docks to increase business, and when the money goes missing, they find themselves under investigation for corruption. And that opens the door for Arturo Ui, a small-time gangster who preys on their mistakes to build an empire of terror, taking over the vegetable trade in Chicago and beyond through means of violence and intimidation.
Bertolt Brecht wrote The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in the 1940s as a satirical parable of the rise of Adolf Hitler, each person and event in the play having a direct counterpart in the history of Nazi Germany. This production by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, featuring a new translation by Stephen Sharkey, imagines the tale as a 1930s radio drama, with a live sound design performance by Ellen Mandel, sung advertisements for Wrigley's Gum and actors transitioning easily between multiple roles. It's unfortunate, in fact, that this framing of the narrative as radio performance largely fades away throughout the play, as the inventive staging and sound effects are an early crowdpleaser, letting the audience in on the creative process.
Also adding to the atmosphere is the use of projections as scenery, drawing the audience into the world by allowing us to imagine the characters as part of black-and-white photographs of the era. Between the scenes in Chicago, however, are projected images and captions of the corresponding events in German history the play represents, which prove difficult to read and ultimately distracting. That Arturo Ui is a Nazi parable is obvious, but producing a play about the rise of a fascist dictator today is a deliberate political choice—by focusing so heavily on the past, this production gives up the opportunity to make connections to the modern world instead.
Under the direction of Kevin Confoy, the play reads more as a thriller than the farce Brecht perhaps intended. The audience is never given the chance to reflect on the fundamental absurdity of gang wars and citywide corruption, all caused by cauliflower. Instead, we watch in horrified fascination as Arturo Ui zeroes in on his targets, learns to perform the power he seeks to claim and struggles to maintain loyalties in the cutthroat world he created.
We never see any of the broken windows, warehouse fires or murders alluded to throughout the performance, other than a single stylized shooting, and yet the bleakness and terror of Arturo Ui's Chicago is completely believable. That's all because of the acting; a strong ensemble performance all around builds up a world audiences can get lost in. Whether it's the fundamental weakness of Craig Smith's Arturo, the menacing but unique personalities of his gangsters Roma (Sergio Fuenzalida), Giri (Zach Lusk) and Givola (Antonio Edwards Suarez) or Betty Dullfleet's (Elise Stone) mercenary acceptance of Arturo's takeover of her city and industry, Arturo Ui is a detailed, intricate portrait of the people and the forces that come together to create fascism.
The production's gangsters and thugs are in fact so clever and charming that you might find yourself rooting for their success, if we weren't constantly being reminded that they are actually Nazis. And of course that's the point, but Phoenix Theatre Ensemble's performance achieves more than just the typical realization of how easy it is for a nation to fall to a fascist dictator. Its innovative melding of forms both historical (radio) and contemporary (video) allows Arturo Ui and Adolf Hitler to step across time so that they feel as real and as frightening today as they did almost a century ago.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui plays at the wild project through November 13.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.