Friends, Romans, Fellow Grocers

Over the next few years, I imagine there will be a revival of interest in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Brecht’s roman à clef about a Chicago gangster who represents Hitler during his rise to power.  We’ll probably see more productions of An Enemy of the People, too, as well as The Crucible and Julius Caesar.  Trump, unfortunately, has a stranglehold on our art as well as our news media; this is especially true in the theater, where a lazy playwright, performer, or director can earn an easy laugh with any kind of winking or nudging reference to the president.  The sixth time Arturo (Raúl Esparza) refers to himself as a “son of Brooklyn,” the woman next to me laughed and whispered to her friend, “Like son of Queens!”  The danger is that art will go the way of the news media, drowning in the sound of its own banalities, banalities such as these.

Unfortunately, John Doyle’s production at Classic Stage Company only adds to this mind-numbing chorus.  Alternating between harsh, overhead fluorescent lights and a single downstage ghost light, the cast dutifully observes Brechtian form, interrupting the transitions between scenes by drily reading out “announcements” that connect Arturo’s actions to Hitler’s.  So, for example, after Arturo has his right-hand man (Eddie Cooper) murdered, we hear, “S.A. CHIEF ROEHM AND FRIENDS AMBUSHED WHILE WAITING FOR HITLER TO STAGE COUP AGAINST HINDENBURG AND GOERING.”  But Doyle offers no clear vision here, no comparison that might prove genuinely insightful.  Esparza occasionally borrows postures from Trump, and in the background the sounds of crowds chanting “Sieg Heil!” eventually fade into “Lock her up!”  This constitutes most of Doyle’s own roman à clef, to which he only seems half-committed.  So what’s the point?  Are we actually learning anything, or are we just drawing superficial connections between past and present?  Brecht, after all, wanted a dialectic; this is a monologue, and one unsure of its purpose.

Now, there is surely rich material to be conceived about the parallels between Hitler and Trump.  This half-hearted, rudderless noise is not it.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui runs through December 22nd at the Classic Stage Company.  136 E. 13th Street  New York, NY.  2 hours.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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