The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Bertolt Brecht wrote The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in 1941, when he was in exile in Finland and the world had not yet fully absorbed the depth of Hitler's depravity. Set in gangland Chicago in the 1930s, the play parodies the stratagems by which Hitler came to power, casting the dictator as a vicious, small-time racketeer scheming to take over the cauliflower trade — men must eat, after all — through fraud, violence and arson. Each event parallels an actual moment in German history; every character has his true-life counterpart. This is a portrait that deliberately scales Hitler down to size: Brecht wanted audiences to mock his clownishness and megalomania rather than fear him.

Countdown to Zero's intentions in staging this piece are admirable; Brecht's play warns that fascists come to power through the laziness, accommodation, ignorance, complacency and corruption of ordinary people, and director Brian Freeland clearly feels this warning is particularly relevant now. But there's a reason The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui isn't done very often: It's talky and full of exposition, moments of drama are few, and for insight and impact, it doesn't come anywhere close to such Brechtian masterpieces as Mother Courage and Her Children or The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

In keeping with Brecht's famed theatrical aesthetic, Freeland has staged the play in a cavernous, shadowy space, with makeup tables visible in the back. The light comes from naked bulbs hanging directly over the actors, who pull cords to turn them on and off. Scrolls explaining the connection between what you're seeing on the stage and what actually happened in Germany periodically drop from the ceiling. Brecht wasn't interested in realism; he wanted his audience to watch at a distance, to remain intellectually rather than emotionally engaged, to be constantly aware of the gulf between the actors and the characters they play. But even so, I couldn't get my intellect engaged — because much of the time I couldn't figure out what was going on.

I'll take partial responsibility: I should know more about the specifics of this historical period than I do. The majority of the problem, though, lies in both the script and this interpretation. At the beginning, I caught rhymed couplets; when the rhyming stopped, I found myself trying to figure out if the lines were still in iambic pentameter — and as a result, I missed important bits of exposition. The actors are deliberately presentational, their expressions either hammy or blank, and some of their movements synchronized. Again, I found myself studying the devices rather than hearing what was said. Distancing, yes, just as Brecht intended, but highly frustrating, too.

The script includes allusions to Shakespeare's Richard III. It's almost impossible not to think about Richard III when confronted with fascist machinations because the dynamics are so universal, but really, what does the allusion add here except to imply that Arturo Ui is following a classic path and Hitler was really, really bad? This would have been a more original thought in 1941, of course, and it was sort of funny to see Ui confronting the ghost of the murdered Ernesto Roma, just as Richard confronted the ghosts of his victims before the Battle of Bosworth Field. But later, when a black-veiled Jessica Robblee as the widowed Betty Dullfeet seemed to be mimicking Lady Anne's lamentation over the coffin of her father-in-law, it was just confusing. Why was a character who'd appeared so flaky and indifferent to peril when her husband was actually threatened being portrayed mock-heroically now?

Or perhaps at that point Robblee wasn't playing Mrs. Dullfeet. Most of the actors had multiple roles; perhaps I'd missed an important plot point and she was someone else.

The play has some insightful lines — even funny ones, occasionally. And there are some good performances here, particularly from Josh Hartwell as a deceptively low-key Arturo Ui and Terry Burnsed in a number of roles. But all in all, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui makes for a very resistible evening.