Review: ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’ by Scena Theatre

"Bertolt Brecht’s warning about a future where no one will resist is filled with venom and fear, not to go unheeded."

I love Brecht. My heart and soul were ready for Scena Theatre’s production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (written during World War II but not produced in America until the late 1950s) – a play about a demagogue silencing others as he rises in his ruthlessness to own a swampy part of the world.

(L to R): Joe Palka, John Gerard Healy, Kim Curtis, Eli El, and Caroline Johnson in ‘Arturo Ui.’ Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Alas, Scena’s production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui left me to wonder if time and historical distance has taken its toll on Brecht’s once biting wit and agitprop satire. Has the zeitgeist moved on? So with apologies to all, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui left me cold. No rage, no raised clenched fist of resistance and revolution came until the final moments.

So, what is Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui about? It is a take on the rise of Adolf Hitler. Brecht has recast the man with the mustache as a small-time, Brooklyn-born, self-pitying Chicago gangster who has big plans–plans to take over Chicago’s grocery trade, beginning with the cauliflower business. It is a tale of corruption and collusion as hoodlum Ui takes on both the upper classes and the “little” people. At the beginning of the play, Ui is told, “Nobody cares enough to bump you off.” “They don’t?” responds Ui in a genuinely aggrieved manner. Ui feels that “they’re giving more respect to horse manure.”

Over time Ui gains power through cunningly shrewd moves. He has been underestimated. Ui bullies and cajoles. He manipulates. He finds weak spots and exploits them. Along his journey, playwright Brecht provides a knowledgeable audience with parallels to the man with the mustache with projections so points are not missed. Brecht also provides high-art references to Shakespeare’s Richard III, Goethe’s Faust and other fictional characters.

Directed by Robert McNamara with a nonnaturalistic stylized approach with hints of a non-musical cabaret and old black-and-white gangster movies, the Scena production features Robert Sheire as Arturo Ui, the Hitler stand-in (his electricity and charisma seemed low in the opening night performance I took in) along with an ensemble of about two dozen of Ui’s henchmen and other characters. The ensemble includes a very watchable Joe Palka as an aging, not so politically pure, upper-crust political figure named Dogborough.

Robert Sheire and Anne Nottage in ‘Arturo Ui.’ Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Acting in an overall stylized, sometimes uneven manner, the full ensemble includes Kim Curtis, Lee Ordeman, David Johnson, Anne Nottage, John Gerard Healy, Scott Bennett, Robert McNamara (as a washed-up Shakespearean actor who trains Ui how to speak and move to seduce others), Eli El, Gori Olofun, Leo Delgado, Michael Miyazaki and Caroline Johnson.

As a play and production, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui poses many political and moral questions. One of the main ones: why don’t folk rise up against Ui? Well, with no guns and ammunition, no free press to take on Ui’s propaganda, the consequences to those who speak up, or speak against the rise of Ui pay a price. Lives are lost, businesses destroyed. What can anyone do is the questions left hanging for the audience to ponder? And, of course, could it happen here in America (or has it already?) was what I overheard as the audience left the theater.

[Read More: Bertolt Brecht and the History Behind The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui]

Jonathan Dahm Robertson designed the austere set for The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The set features metal pipe scaffolding, some risers, and blood red drapery. Nothing pretty, so it fits the show’s outlook. Lighting designer Jonathan Alexander has a terrific “look” up his sleeve that focuses attention on the goings on with some major white-hot lighting. (Projections are uncredited). Sound designer Denise Rose uses preshow music to initially beguile the audience. Selections include a peppy “Putting on the Ritz” and jazzy up-tempo “Autumn Leaves,” as well as a Frank Sinatra take on “When You’re Smiling.”

Robert McNamara in ‘Arturo Ui.’ Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Costume designer Brian J. Shaw has the male cast members in big shoulder suits and loose-fitting trousers and street clothes. For Ui, his attire becomes better fitting and looks more expensive over the course of the production.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is tenacious in its point of view. But that means it is talky, full of relentless invective about greed. Nuanced it is not. Driving home, I wondered if Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui would engage a diverse, younger set of audience members. Or just Boomers for whom it may be closer to their own lived experiences. But, for this Boomer, the production left me unexcited.

Then again, the last line delivered by Sheire as Arturo Ui as he looked directly into the audience sent authentic shivers through me. Brecht’s warning about a future where no one will resist is filled with venom and fear, not to go unheeded. Not unlike Kevin McCarthy at the fade of the original, fabled black-and-white “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” when he said, “Make them listen to me before it’s too late.”

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes, with one intermission.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui plays through July 15, 2019, presented by Scena Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. For tickets, go online.