Cauliflower and carbine pistols are how Arturo Ui gains power in the play "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui."
Bertolt Brecht’s play runs from Dec. 1 to 9 at the Wells-Metz Theatre.
Set in Chicago in the 1930s, the play follows gangster Arturo Ui and his attempt to wrest control of the underground cauliflower racket from the control of grocers and businessmen. He rises from a nobody to mob boss by crafting a public persona and manipulating words and power to his advantage.
“It’s sort of a black comedy satire that tells an actual story you can engage with,” Nathaniel Kohlmeier, the actor playing Giri, said. “It’s about dictators, it’s about how democracy goes away so quickly and how quickly we can slide into being owned by a tyrant.”
Subtitled “A parable play,” the work is a loose allegory for the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Historical events, such as Nazi Germany’s Reichstag Fire, have their counterparts in the play without being overly tied to Hitler. The play is not focused on any one leader and is instead more interested in an examination of tyrants throughout history, Castellan said.
“We’re trying to take a slightly broader view on, for example, what are the patterns, how do tyrants gain power, how democracy can slide into dictatorship, and how it's not this unstoppable force,” director William Castellan said.
Though the play is structured for men’s roles, this production is composed of 13 women and two men. Gender was not something Brecht focused on in terms of casting, but putting women in masculine roles works for the play, Castellan said.
“It's useful the way we’re having this cultural moment about men and power and privilege,” Castellan said. “I think it’s useful to put that grit in the gears to see what that does.”
The setting of the play is inspired by classic Chicago architecture, featuring grand I-beam structures and era-fundamental burlap sacks. Notorious gangsters, such as Al Capone, are mentioned in the play.
“It's a pretty fun gangster story,” Castellan said. “He rips off some of those film tropes, the shakedowns and the double crosses.”
Much of the dialogue is written in a loose form of Shakespearean blank verse. Characters speak in couplets consisting of iambic pentameter.
“You’ll have moments of that, of people speaking in this very poetic language, then of gangsters being gangsters and shooting each other,” Kohlmeier said. “It’s toned down a lot, but the ideas of rhyming couplets, characters going on these whole huge monologues and tragedy are there.”
This focus on elevated language keeps audiences from getting too emotionally connected with the characters, Kohlmeier said.
“Brecht never wanted anyone to get sucked into the story and have this emotional experience and then go home,” Castellan said. “He’s not against you having feelings, but he doesn’t want the feelings to get in the way of you thinking.”
Overall, the story is a thrilling ride but also challenges the audience as individuals, Castellan said.
“It’s a workout for empathy,” Castellan said. “It can make us better citizens. In fair weather and foul weather, democracies need to check in with themselves, and this play is a call to action for that in any community.”
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