The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

The Lantern Theater Company, Philadelphia

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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 Currently running at the Lantern Theater Company Bertolt Brecht’s rarely staged “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” directed by Charles McMahon who doesn’t dilute Brecht flaming anvil of a political play about the rise of mobster businessman who becomes politically a ruthless dictator mowing down everyone in his demented quest for totalitarian power. Sound familiar?

Brecht got his family out of Germany before the silenced him. He wrote the play in 1941, in exile and making plans to emigrate to America. ‘Arturo’ was his scathing political parable to warn Americans that what happened to him and his family in Germany in the 30s, can indeed happen anywhere.

Arturo’s conceit is a satirical roman a clef of Chicago mobsters that represent Hitler’s henchmen who facilitated the Nazis power grab.  Brecht’s boiling dramatic stew of dramaturg is further vamped by parodying mobster flicks of the 30s- a Capone-esque mobster running prostitution, liquor, guns and ‘protection’ rackets in the Windy City. All of the merchants and city officials are tied up in the business. And all have everything to lose, including their lives, if they defy him.  

Even McMahon can’t really conquer the avalanche of information in the opening scene, the rapid fire set up the political swamp that greases the unscrupulous businessmen and politicos.  But past that the more lyrical Brechtian dialogue rhythms, along with his wild cast of characters let loose an intriguing theatrical polemic.  

McMahon orchestrates a sterling cast starting with Frank X as the hilariously droll merchant Dogsborough, an 80-year old produce merchant who gets bamboozled by Arturo’s operatives who rope him into business deal that may or may not be connected with Arturo.  Of course he ends up in the dock in a kangaroo court. Meanwhile, Frank X is masterful as he delivers Brecht’s most poetic dialogue and reconciles his complicity.

Brecht’s theatrical rallying cry is a dizzying crucible that may now beg for cuts, McMahon and assistant director David Bardem, however awkwardly, leap over its spiky hurtles. They consistently sharpen the satirical edges and tamp down thematic bloat with inspired character comedy.

Anthony Lawton’s Arturo, by design keeps hitting the same concussive note, and Lawton gives a maniacal performance that makes your skin craw, but also lands priceless comic moments opposite a hilarious Jared McLenigan as a haughty Shakespearean actor who is trying to teach him how to walk with regal authority and losing his Bronx accent. 

Arturo is alternately a simpering narcissist who one minute is begging a respected member of the community for his friendship and the next minute, threatening the life and livelihood of everyone who stands in his way. 

 Wonderful ensemble cast with many Lantern Theater regulars doubling up on different roles. Brian Anthony Wilson, McLenigan, Charles DelMarcelle, David Pica, and Gregory Isaac.

Doing the most supporting character lifting though are the two women in the cast in multiple roles, Julia Hopkins, recurring throughout as Dogsborough’s devoted daughter and Mary Lee Bednarek is the soused ganger moll on the stroll and the righteous widow of an honest politician. 

There is no way around the Brecht’s didactic fire in Act II, Brecht unleashing a fuselage of political messaging. And McMahon makes it operatic but gives this fine cast to bring subtlety and power to their characters. The cast of nine often delivering energized ensemble work with difficult material.

The stellar production designs by Drew Billiau (lighting) and Christopher Colucci (sound) border on the cinematic in tandem with Nick Embree desiccated Weimar-era proscenium arch stage set against corroded water pipes keep giving, especially the in the production’s ominous final seconds.

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