“The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” is a darkly comic allegory about Hitler and the Nazi takeover of Germany in the 1930s. But in the Fort Lewis College production opening March 29, you won’t see thugs with clubs, jackboots, brown shirts or swastikas.
“It’s about brute force,” said Director Theresa Carson. “You could do this play anytime.”
Carson has subtitled Bertolt Brecht’s work “a gangster spectacle” because Brecht deliberately channeled the look and language of American mobster films of the same era.
“Our set has a chain-link fence, boxes, debris and a billboard on the back wall that all suggest a violent urban space. But we’ve painted an open sky with clouds on our rear brick wall, too,” she said. “The set, like the play, is full of contradictions.”
In 1933, Brecht, a prominent German playwright, fled his homeland when Adolph Hitler came to power. From 1941 to 1947, he lived in exile in America and wrote many of his masterworks, including “Ui.” Apparently, Chicago’s mob rule appealed to him as a parallel to Hitler’s brown shirts. And Hollywood’s Depression-era gangster films provided an apt allegory for any tyrant anywhere. He initially hoped “Ui” would be performed in the United States.
After World War II, Brecht returned to Germany and founded the Berliner Ensemble where he produced plays until his death in 1956. He wrote “Arturo Ui” in 1941, but it wasn’t staged until 1958.
In addition to knowing this is an allegory about a tyrant, it’s helpful to know about Brecht’s innovative presentation style.
“The acting style is challenging,” Carson said. “This is not realism. This is not the Greek concept of catharsis – to see a play, identify with the characters and move through conflict toward resolution – leaving the theater feeling satisfied.”
Brecht’s Epic Theatre, or the Theatre of Alienation as it’s sometimes called, doesn’t want the audience to become emotionally attached to characters. The goal is to be estranged enough to question and analyze what is happening – enough to leave the theater and take action.”
To achieve this distancing effect, Brecht used a number of techniques to remind the audience about the artificiality of the enterprise.
“We’re using screen projections, often in contradictory ways,” Carson said. “My assistant director, Marc Arbeeny, has been enormously helpful finding interesting songs and slides. There are 15 scenes. One is a silent movie. Twenty-three actors play 70 roles, and periodically, the actors break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience.”
The play opens as such when an announcer (Hallie Denman) greets the audience: “Ladies and gents, we bring you tonight the great historical gangster show!”
Carson said she hopes the audience will realize that this kind of interruptive theater has become familiar. We don’t realize, she noted, how revolutionary Brechtian style seemed in the wake of Realism – the reigning genre at the beginning of the 20th century.
It’s part of the mission of educational theater, she said, to introduce students to different styles of playwriting and performance. During rehearsals, Carson said, she talked with the cast about Brecht’s main point: Fascism is resistible – if we act.
“I challenged the actors to find a resistible moment in their parts and what may or may not have made the character follow through,” she said.
If Brecht would have his way today, 62 years after his death, he might ask the same of audience members. If you see an injustice, what do you do?
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.