By Sarah Downs
You know, if Classic Stage isn’t careful, it’s going to get a reputation. First there was the epic performance of Marin Ireland in Summer and Smoke, then Anika Noni Rose soaring above the crowd in Carmen Jones, and now Raúl Esparza, throwin’ down in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. CSC has seriously raised the bar.
What a stroke of genius for Bertolt Brecht to create an allegory of fascism, to the tune of Hitler’s real-time rise to power, centering on the control of cauliflower distribution. Cauliflower. Innocent cruciferous vegetable or world domination, it’s all the same to aspiring mob boss Arturo Ui. He sucks the wind out of every room he enters. Characters may have their own issues and destinies, but Ui has one philosophy and one only. What’s in it for Ui? (Sound familiar?)
As Arturo Ui, Esparza is a beast – devouring the stage with his every step, clawing at the air with expressive hands, teasing us with his humor, bullying the audience with a malevolent stare. Richard III eat your heart out.
Esparza drives the production, moving seamlessly among a myriad different moods with a feeling of utter spontaneity. He is electric – part Ru Paul, part Damon Runyon gangster, part disingenuous nebbish and all mad-dog killer. Joining Esparza on stage are a small band of experienced actors comfortable in their skin and facile with their craft, who never let the energy flag. There’s Ui’s trusted sidekick Roma (a soft-spoken and imposing Eddie Cooper), the ill-fated Dogsborough (a stalwart Christopher Gurr) and the clubfooted Givola (an assured, slyly menacing Thom Sesma).
Most of the actors wear several hats, as it were, clad in nondescript clothing in varying shades of gray intentionally blurring their individual identities. However, as the play is as much allegory as drama, it’s not as much about who they are; it’s what they represent. Nevertheless, each actor makes an impression. George Abud, corrupt shill and ill-fated ‘fish’, also plays the ‘gentleman of the press’ Ragg with near vaudevillian glee. His fellow shill Mahira Kakkar shades her enthusiasm for crime with irrepressible innocence. As Giri, Elizabeth A. Davis plays against type, killing with ruthless practicality. Omozé Idehenre creates strongly disparate characters as everything from a very masculine grocery distributor Mr. Crocket, to the decidedly feminine Betty Dullfleet, who can plot with the best of them. Idihenre holds her own impressively in the stare-down with Esparza.
Director John Doyle‘s stripped down production, which sets the action in an anonymous, industrial milieu, intentionally exposes the bones of the play as both text and narrative, without losing any of the through line of the drama. Doyle mostly focuses the action in the central playing space, but regularly challenges the audience with Esparza’s penetrating gaze. When the actors scatter to the four corners of the theater, they gather us into the crowd; circus barkers drumming up business.
I took a while to warm up to Doyle’s set design, with its use of both theatrical and ‘practical’ onstage flourescent overhead lighting, a chain link fence keeping the actors out (or in?), and folding tables. I am sure my ambivalence stems partly from the discomfort caused by the blinding ‘ghost lamp’ upstage center for all of Act I. Set about waist high its beam glares directly in the eye line of most of the audience, to the extent that I spent most of Act I with my eyes shielded or my head down, just listening to the play.
With a riveting performance by Raúl Esparza, the The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is devastating. It has a relevance is too blinding to be avoided. What could be more sobering — watching a brilliant play about the rise of fascism and the misery of ruthless despotism even as we witness today renewed rumblings of fascism both at home and abroad. It’s déjà vu all over again.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht, translated by George Tabori , directed and designed by John Doyle; with Raúl Esparza, George Abud, Eddie Cooper, Elizabeth A. Davis, Christopher Gurr, Omozé Idehenre, Mahira Kakkar, and Thom Sesma. The creative team includes Anne Hould-Ward (Costume Design), Jane Cox and Tess James (Lighting Design), Matt Stine (Sound Design).
Classic Stage Company (CSC; Artistic Director, John Doyle) Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street, New York, NY 10003). Runs November 14th – December 22nd, 2018, as follows: Tues.–Thurs. at 7pm, Fri.–Sat. at 8pm, and Sat.–Sun. at 2pm. There will be no performances on Thursday, November 22, 2018 or Friday, November 23, 2018. Single tickets ($75 previews, $80 post opening, $125 prime) can be purchased at classicstage.org or 212-352-3101 (or toll free 866-811-4111)