You know, if Classic Stage Company isn’t careful, it’s going to get a reputation. First there was the epic performance of Marin Ireland in Summer and Smoke, then Anika Noni Rose soaring above the crowd in Carmen Jones, and now Raúl Esparza, throwin' down in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. CSC has seriously raised the bar.
What a stroke of genius for Bertolt Brecht to create an allegory of fascism, to the tune of Hitler’s real-time rise to power, centering on the control of cauliflower distribution. Cauliflower. Innocent, cruciferous vegetable or world domination, it’s all the same to aspiring mob boss Arturo Ui. He sucks the wind out of every room he enters. Characters may have their own issues and destinies, but Ui has one philosophy and one only. What's in it for Ui? (Sound familiar?)
As Arturo Ui, Esparza is a beast - devouring the stage with his every step, clawing at the air with expressive hands, teasing us with his humor, bullying the audience with a malevolent stare. Richard III, eat your heart out.
Esparza drives the production, moving seamlessly among a myriad of different moods with a feeling of utter spontaneity. He is electric - part Ru Paul, part Damon Runyon gangster, part disingenuous nebbish and all mad-dog killer. Joining Esparza on stage are a small band of experienced actors comfortable in their skin and facile with their craft, who never let the energy flag. There's Ui's trusted sidekick Roma (a soft-spoken and imposing Eddie Cooper), the ill-fated Dogsborough (a stalwart Christopher Gurr) and the clubfooted Givola (an assured, slyly menacing Thom Sesma).
Most of the actors wear several hats, as it were, clad in non-descript clothing in varying shades of gray intentionally blurring their individual identities. However, as the play is as much allegory as drama, it's not as much about who they are; it's what they represent. Nevertheless, each actor makes an impression. George Abud, corrupt shill and ill-fated 'fish', also plays the 'gentleman of the press' Ragg with near vaudevillian glee. His fellow shill Mahira Kakkar shades her enthusiasm for crime with irrepressible innocence. As Giri, Elizabeth A. Davis plays against type, killing with ruthless practicality. Omozé Idehenre creates strongly disparate characters as everything from a very masculine grocery distributor Mr. Crocket, to the decidedly feminine Betty Dullfleet, who can plot with the best of them. Idihenre holds her own impressively in the stare-down with Esparza.
Director John Doyle's stripped down production, which sets the action in an anonymous, industrial milieu, intentionally exposes the bones of the play as both text and narrative, without losing the through line of the drama. Doyle mostly focuses the action in the central playing space, but regularly challenges the audience with Esparza's penetrating gaze. When the actors scatter to the four corners of the theater, they gather us into the crowd; circus barkers drumming up business.
I took a while to warm up to Doyle's set design, with its use of both theatrical and 'practical' onstage flourescent overhead lighting, a chain link fence keeping the actors out (or in?), and folding tables. I am sure my ambivalence stems partly from the discomfort caused by the blinding 'ghost lamp' upstage center for all of Act I. Set about waist high its beam glares directly in the eye line of most of the audience, to the extent that I spent most of Act I with my eyes shielded or my head down, just listening to the play.
With a riveting performance by Raúl Esparza, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is devastating. It has a relevance too blinding to be avoided. What could be more sobering -- watching a brilliant play about the rise of fascism and the misery of ruthless despotism even as we witness today renewed rumblings of fascism both at home and abroad. It's déjà vu all over again.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"Mr. Esparza, a performer of wit and fire, doesn’t fail to amuse in the role and — when his character roams the audience with the dead eyes of a shark — to chill. He’s especially entertaining when Arturo slips into faux-Shakespeare mode, evoking not only Richard III (the obvious parallel), but also Hamlet (for the early, surly Ui) and Macbeth (“Is this a luger I see before me?”). Unlike most English-language productions of Brecht, this one makes sure that all the cast members stay on the same stylistic page. But few people are likely to leave “Arturo Ui” thinking how scary it is in its topicality."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Brecht’s ultra-dense text is packed with allusion, quotation and wordplay, and even in a cut version it’s a massive meal to digest. (George Tabori’s translation, a blend of '30s Chicago-ese and Renaissance folderol, is itself a masterpiece.) Doyle’s production is certainly streamlined, and it boasts a wonderful Ui—Raúl Esparza plays the part just at the edge of clowning—but his directorial choices also make this character-crammed epic harder to understand."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
"Among the actors only Raúl Esparza appears to have gotten the memo that Brecht is mixing vegetables and fascism to ridicule Hitler and his boys. Brecht wrote “Arturo Ui” just one year after the release of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” and Esparza does a better job of sending up Hitler than the Little Tramp himself. No master of spoken dialogue, Chaplin lacked Esparza’s ability to turn a line inside out repeatedly."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap
"Bertolt Brecht's 1941 work The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a verse-heavy allegory about Adolf Hitler's rise to power, has seldom been produced on our shores since its 1963 Broadway premiere starring Christopher Plummer (oh, to have seen that production!). Its relative rarity, and the superb performance by Raul Esparza in the title role, are the main reasons to see Classic Stage Co.'s revival directed by John Doyle, working in his familiar minimalist style. This only fitfully effective production of one of Brecht's lesser works demands considerable patience, not to mention a previous familiarity with the play."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...