Last year, the Public Theater managed to make international headlines – and attract the attention and hostility of ultra-right-wing news outlets – with a Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in which the title character was turned into an unmistakable caricature of President Donald Trump. (A year earlier, the Public Theater had given Trump a voiceover cameo in a revisionist The Taming of the Shrew.) Imposing Trump onto Julius Caesar was daring but (if not misguided and inappropriate) at least questionable.
A far easier (yet also far more difficult) way to compare Trump to a historic dictator is to revive Bertolt Brecht’s cynical-minded, rarely seen 1941 political allegory The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, in which the title character (a gangster who takes over the Chicago cauliflower market through intimidation, fear-mongering, suppression of dissent, and violence) is an obvious stand-in for Hitler. The play is currently being produced by Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company, under the direction of John Doyle (who not long ago became the company’s artistic director, and whose minimalistic ethos is now seeping into all of its productions, even those not directed by him), starring Raul Esparza (who played Bobby in Doyle’s actor-musician revival of Sondheim’s Company) as Arturo Ui. It is worth noting that Esparza has devoted the last few years to steady television work instead of the New York stage.
Interestingly, the play has received much more attention in London than New York in recent years. A few years ago, Henry Goodman headlined a production at the Chichester Festival, which then transferred to London’s West End. It was also just produced by the Donmar Warehouse in 2017. By comparison, the Classic Stage production marks the first major production in New York since a starry 2002 production (with Al Pacino, Charles Durning, Chazz Palminteri, Steve Buscemi, Paul Giamatti and John Goodman) produced by the late Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre.
Arturo Ui (which was written in exile, partially inspired by American gangster movies of the period, and not produced during Brecht’s lifetime) is not an easy play to pull off, even compared to Brecht’s other very challenging plays. The overall concept (gangster as a stand-in for Hitler) is not difficult to grasp. However, the significance of the many supporting characters (who represent other historic figures such as Paul von Hindenburg and Joseph Goebbels) is not easily ascertainable to a modern audience. But even with such knowledge, the play is stiff, dense and long-winded in its point-by-point depiction of Arturo Ui’s rise to power. The best scene is a simple but inspired one where Arturo Ui receives training from a washed-up Shakespearian actor (Elizabeth A. Davis, Once) in public speaking and poise (one unexpected bit of advice is to clutch on to his private parts when crossing the room).
Doyle’s spare, industrial-style production begins on a promising note, with the eight-member, modern-dress, ethnically diverse ensemble emerging from behind a towering chain-link fence and presenting itself in a direct and unaffected (i.e. Brechtian) manner. The actors continue to speak lines directly to the audience throughout the show – not just narration, but exchanges of dialogue. Using a small cast (with doubling of roles and casting against type) also keeps the audience at a Brechtian remove. However, the doubling (as well as the lack of set and costume changes) makes the play hard to follow and monotonous. Doyle also downplays the play’s sense of satire and humor.
Brecht made a point of directly laying out the historic parallels to Hitler’s regime, as if to make sure that no audience member missed out of them and the points he wanted to make. Doyle, in a similar vein, makes sure that no audience member misses out on the parallels to Trump’s America, ending the production with nods to Trump’s wardrobe and a disturbing, often-repeated chant from his political rallies.
Esparza (who uses a thick nasal voice before undergoing a makeover) exhibits some of the manic, freewheeling behavior that characterized his prior performances (which inspired the Forbidden Broadway parody “Being Intense,” to the tune of “Being Alive”). His Arthur Ui is virile and vicious, not unlike Macheath in The Threepenny Opera. Perhaps Doyle and Esparza can team up for that next?