German modernist master Bertolt Brecht was fascinated with America, especially before he actually moved to the United States during World War II. Having fled the Nazis in 1941, he was stranded in Finland when he imagined that Adolf Hitler’s consolidation of power in the previous decade could be retold as a cautionary tale by portraying the brutal ambitions of a Chicago-area gangster not unlike Al Capone.
Brecht’s dark satire, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, languished for about 16 years before ever being produced. Since then it has had a poor record, leaving schnitzel on the face of stars like Christopher Plummer who failed to pull it off. The energetic production from Le Moyne College’s Boot and Buskin Theatre Club is likely to be the only one you’ll ever get to see.
Professional guest director Matthew R. Wilson, imported from Washington, D.C.’s Faction of Fools Theatre, has conspicuously done all his homework on epic theater and all manner of Brechtiana. The music alone, starting with Django Reinhardt blending into Al Jolson, confirms that we are in the right place. His set, designed by student Maria Giordano, features colorless warehouse crates downstage and art deco trimmed screens upstage. On these are flashed vintage newsreels from the 1930s along with footage from period Warner Brothers movies.
In the far upper corners, left and right, are screens featuring period newspapers spelling out the parallels between what happened in Germany and what we are seeing on stage. For example, the fairly benign but ineffectual power, Old Dogsborough (Orlando Ocampo), the Arturo challenges is a type for Chancellor Paul von Hindenberg, head of state when Hitler emerges.
In keeping with Brecht’s aesthetic, action begins with the almost nameless members of the ensemble, who provide exposition and other necessaries. The principal weakness of the production is that it is hard to tell the names of the characters we are supposed to remember, even though many players are miked. It takes a while, for instance, to sort out the name of Giuseppe Givola (Brendan Didio), a stand-in for Joseph Goebbels.
Vincent Randazzo’s Arturo Ui, however, is an entirely original creation, not a spoof of Hitler a la Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, nor a knockoff of Hollywood gangsters like Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Cagney or Paul Muni. With his pencil-thin moustache, red shirt and black tie (costumes by Lindsey Quay Sikes), Arturo is unmistakably the boss. Initially he appears to be holding his strength in reserve, even while egged on by a sidekick with a hotter head, Ernesto Roma (Christopher Lupia). Roma is based on Hitler pal Ernst Röhm, whom der Führer must eventually betray. Randazzo and Lupia, company regulars in recent years, are the strongest players in the cast.
The real Al Capone, of course, made his fortune dealing with booze, a high mark-up commodity, during Prohibition. Perhaps to diminish Arturo/Hitler’s status, Brecht has him taking over the cauliflower trade, completely controlling it and turning it into a trust, demanding the maximum price, as the robber barons did with silver and pork bellies. Along with this comes a protection racket.
That anything with such marginal appeal (“Eat your veggies”) could be used as a weapon in social control is, of course, is outwardly absurd, but not in the ha-ha sense. From Brecht’s political point of view, of course, booze is also a discretionary item rather than a necessity, but if a strong man/entrepreneur dominates it, that locked-in trust is the platform for power.
Arturo’s goal within the two-hour play is to extend his power into suburban Cicero, indeed a center of gangland action in the 1930s. The local player there is the sweet-tempered Ignatius Dullfeet (Alex LeBlond), a stand-in for hapless Austrian premier Engelbert Dollfuss. Impotent in the face of incarnate evil, Dullfeet warbles Charlie Chaplin’s wistful “Smile,” a characteristic Brechtian moment.
A cast of 16 inhabits more roles than we can count, some slipping from one character to another with a flick of a hat or wig. Especially impressive are Rachel Momot as Betty Dullfeet, Brendan Didio as Givola, Alice Olum as the Defense Attorney and Brittany Fayle as Emanuele Giri (a trousers role, and a stand-in for Hermann Göring), with a hideous, mirthless laugh.
Brendan Didio, Vincent Randazzo and Christopher Lupia in Le Moyne College’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.
Le Moyne College’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui has performances on Thursday, April 16, and Friday, April 17, 8 p.m., and Saturday, April 18, 2 and 8 p.m., at the Coyne Center for the Performing Arts, 1419 Salt Springs Road. Call 445-4200 for details.