Review: Raúl Esparza stars in an Eerily Relevant “Arturo Ui”

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Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 allegory play “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” adapts the rise of Hitler to Chicago mobsters taking over the cauliflower industry. This dense text is not frequently performed and when it is, it is usually not well received. However, in our modern political climate, a play about the rise of fascism seems more relevant than ever.

John Doyle’s production of “Arturo Ui” at Classic Stage Company leans very heavily on the more-than-obvious parallels between Ui, Hitler, and Trump. Just in case you missed it, a long red tie makes an appearance and the ensemble shouts Sieg Heils to a “Lock her up!” track. Brecht’s epic theater is all about educating the masses, stylized performance, and allusions. This production is certainly quite Brechtian, but even by these standards it may lack some subtly.

The larger issue of the production is a confusion of plot events and characters, which is equally the fault of the play and the director. The eight person ensemble are all double and triple cast, jumping from murderers to henchmen to victims and grocers to lawyers and back again. In attempt to help you follow the allegory, a voice announces between scenes the German history event that each scene about Chicago gangsters and groceries is supposed to represent. Pay attention, it all moves very quickly.

However, perhaps the best way to experience this production is to just let it zoom past you. Don’t focus on the details, just enjoy the terrifying ride — at least in the theater, the whole piece’s argument it to not sit idly by, but in a production this streamlined, it may be your only choice as an audience member. Besides, in this play it is not the confusing historical events or allegorical characters representing German politicians you’ve never heard of that matter, it’s all about Ui.

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To take on this behemoth of a role — equal parts Hitler, Trump, clown, and Shakespearean villain — is the almighty Raúl Esparza. The play may be dense, the production may be confusing, and direction may be a bit heavy handed, the design too minimal, but Mr. Esparza is perfect. He is hilarious and terrifying, alternating between pride at being an outsider, “the son of Brooklyn” and giving coercive and convincing political speeches. Sound familiar?

Even if you can’t keep the secondary and tertiary characters straight or follow the plot events, it is fascinating to watch the transformation of Ui in Esparza’s brilliant performance. He learns how to walk (toes first, head up!), how to speak (veg-e-table!), and how to manipulate the masses. He takes down whoever he needs to, kills off unloyal henchmen, and seizes anything he wants. (Once again, sound familiar?)

Through it all, Esparza adeptly alters his physicality, his dialect, and his presence, morphing from hilarious naivety to expert fearmongering. He jumps from punny Shakespeare jokes to staring down audiences members and screaming at them to uprise with alacrity and skill.

The translation by George Tabori is particularly masterful, notably in the powerful ending, which compels us to not let another resistible rise occur: “If we could learn to look instead of gawking, we’d see the horror in the heart of farce” and the chilling finale, “the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

Theater Critic and Queer Blogger. Vassar College alum, currently working toward a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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