“Ladies and gents, we bring you tonight – The great historical gangster show!”
Delivered vaudevillian style by a darkly cheerful Announcer (the wonderful Hallie Denman), those are the opening lines of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.”
The fast-paced parable about fascism and the rise of Hitler opened last week at Fort Lewis College. It’s set in Chicago and looks a lot like an American gangster movie transported to a modern stage. It’s also the strongest and most sophisticated production the FLC Drama Department has mounted in years. Do whatever you have to do to see a performance. It will run through Saturday.
Brecht’s 1941 allegory about thuggish power is a highly stylized cautionary tale. It’s not realistic. It’s not Arthur Miller and it’s not a musical, although there’s plenty of music throughout.
Directed by Theresa Carson, the FLC production is smart and buzzes steadily from a prologue where the Announcer introduces key characters and outlines the plot through 15 scenes and a stunning ending.
Carson has assembled a large cast, 23 players who take on 70 roles. She’s trained them in Brechtian style: presentational, declamatory and highly gestural. It’s a far cry from realism, yet intensely effective with this cast. With few exceptions, every actor rises to the challenge. Some need merely to project at a level established by the majority of the cast.
As the corrupt mob boss Arturo Ui, Austin Cohen has the widest emotional range. Reminiscent of the mobsters Jimmy Cagney played in dozens of mob films, Cohen is compelling whether depressed, enraged, triumphant or predatory as he is in a gripping scene with the widow Dullfleet (the powerful Shaunibah Mari Morfin). Ernesto Roma, Ui’s angry, betrayed consiglieri, comes to life in an intense performance by Ben Reece.
Other notable performances: Robert Neel as Flake, Isabella Gray as Butcher, Kody John as Givola, Gus Palma as Giri and Alicia Aron in several roles but especially as the grateful widow Bowl, who thanks Ui for sending flowers to her husband’s funeral after having him shot. After her tear-stained confession, Luke McCauley as Ui’s bodyguard James Greenwool springs into song. With his lush baritone voice, McCauley’s “Danny Boy” never sounded so fraught. Did I say this is not a family show?
Carson and her creative team have integrated every element of Brecht’s world into a unified whole. Costumer Jane Gould and her crew have re-created credible mobsters, workers and pin-striped elites.
A stunning urban set by Amy Gilley combines walls, a chain-link fence, wooden barriers, topped by an anachronistic blue sky painted on the back wall. A high screen functions as a billboard where scene locations appear alternating with pungent quotes and one iconic news photo from one of America’s many school massacres.
Credit Assistant Director/Dramaturg Marc Arbeeny for salting Brecht’s dark allegory with eclectic music, quotations for screen projections and a short silent film. It substitutes for a Scene Six acting lesson where Arturo Ui learns how to walk, sit and stand like a powerful person. It’s a funny interruption, one that comically brings to mind both Charlie Chaplin and a contemporary politician.
Listen for music from “Threepenny Opera,” by Brecht and his collaborator Kurt Weill. The FLC production opens and closes with the familiar “Mack the Knife.”
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.