In its season opener, Lantern Theater Company bravely tackles Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, the mighty German playwright’s epic drama written in 1941. The date is significant; Brecht fled Germany after Hitler came to power and he wrote this demagogue-bashing parody in exile.
The show — and this is intended to be a show, not a conventional play — begins with The Announcer introducing the main characters and finishing with this:
And lastly Public Enemy Number One
Arturo Ui. Now you’ll see
The biggest gangster of all times
Whom heaven sent us for our crimes
Our weakness and stupidity!
Find relevance where you may.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui may be Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler” before the fact, except Brecht’s allegory of political villainy is far less funny and far more ferocious. Brecht’s intention was to weaponize theater.
The plot has Arturo Ui (Anthony Lawton), a mob boss, corner the cauliflower market. (The absurdity here is somewhat weakened by the current veggie-trend).
Ui’s ruthless henchmen (played by Charlie DelMarcelle, Brian Anthony Wilson, Jered McLenigan, and Gregory Isaac) help him overtake first Chicago and then neighboring Cicero, with more cities to come, murdering poor old Dogsborough (Frank X) along the way and seducing the widow (Mary Lee Bednarek) of his murdered enemy, a la Richard III.
It’s a protection racket, enabled in part by corrupt police and corrupt judges. The members of the press are intimidated, and one by one the henchmen are eliminated.
It is evident that Lantern’s choice of this play is highly political, intending to use Brecht’s “alienation effect” to make us think about our contemporary world rather than sympathize with or identify with these characters.
The difficult aspects of any production of any Brecht production are style and tone, and Charles McMahon’s direction sometimes misses the mark. Vacillating between farce and old-fashioned drama, this production never becomes the terrifying parable it is intended to be.
Lawton doesn’t look like Hitler or sound like Hitler. There is none of the rabble-rousing, ego-inflated hysteria. He just looks and sounds like a 1930s gangster.
There are highlighted moments: the scene where Arturo Ui hires a Shakespearean actor (McLeningan) to teach him how to talk and walk is entertaining, especially since Philadelphia audiences know both of these excellent actors. But there is a dream sequence that is more Dickens than Brecht, as Arturo Ui is visited by the ghosts of betrayals past.
Near the end there is a great moment: Ui insists “The city has to elect me in full freedom,” and, of course, they do. The indictment of our complicity should land like a bomb in the audience’s laps. Remember: The title tells us that the rise of Ui is resistible.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Through Oct. 13 at Lantern Theater, 10th & Ludlow Streets.