Owning the underground cauliflower racket is the goal of two-bit mob boss Arturo Ui in Bertolt Brecht’s play, “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.”
The play premiered Dec. 1 and runs through Dec. 9 at the Wells-Metz Theatre.
Set in Chicago in the 1930s, the play follows gangster Arturo Ui and his attempt to take control of the underground cauliflower racket from grocers and businessmen. Though Arturo Ui starts as a petty thief, he builds his public persona and manipulates words and power to his advantage, enabling his eventual rise to mob boss.
“It’s a gangster story about this guy’s rise to power,” Nathaniel Kohlmeier, an actor playing Giri, said. “It’s about democracy. It’s about choices.”
Arturo Ui’s first move is to force politician Dogsborough into granting him protection from the cops so that Arturo can force his cauliflower protection racket on the grocers of Chicago without fear. In each step, Arturo uses force, power or suave speech to compel others to do his bidding.
“He specifically says 'resistible,' because he’s making a point about the other people surrounding him and the decisions and compromises they made that allowed him to do what he did,” director Liam Castellan said.
The show's set design includes a mix of elements from 1930's Chicago and Nazi Germany architecture. Tall I-beams tower over the set, and frayed burlap curtains hang from them. The ground resembles the floor of a gas chamber.
“It’s taking from all sorts of different elements from Nazi iconology as well as industrial Chicago,” Kohlmeier said.
The work was written in 1941, after Brecht was exiled from Nazi Germany. Subtitled “A parable play,” characters and events are loosely allegorical for the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany during the 1930s, though Brecht’s writing is never explicit in its interpretation of Hitler’s tyranny.
“We just think that Hitler just took over Germany without knowing how,” Castellan said. “Germany was a democracy. All democracies can get a little complacent about that. Even in the best of times, we should be vigilant and learn more about these kinds of things.”
Despite being set in the 20th century, characters and dialogue are handled as though they appeared in a Shakespeare play. They speak in meter, rhyme and verse, sometimes in monologues and with grand gestures.
“He decided to take the sort of classical Elizabethan theater in terms of verse, dialogue in terms of grand style,” Castellan said. “He writes most of it in a loose blank verse, looser than Shakespeare's blank verse, or in iambic pentameter.”
Rhyming couplets are spoken throughout the play, such as “What can I advise? A friendly offer is never wise,” or, “There’s something rotten in the state of Illinois, could it be the cauliflower boys?”
Kohlmeier said Brecht wrote this way to limit audience engagement with the characters.
“He was like, ‘I don’t want people to emotionally connect with the characters, I want people to analyze the themes,’” Kohlmeier said. “So, if you write in this high style that’s not naturalistic, it’s harder for people to connect.”
This production features a cast of 13 women and two men. Kohlmeier said it’s important to give more roles to women in theater.
“Pushing for more women as leads and filling casts, even if the play doesn’t specifically call for women, has worked in this case,” Kohlmeier said. “Looking forward, I think people will take a clue from that. It was important to throw the rules out the window and say, ‘Let’s give these people an opportunity.’”
Although it seems like Hitler appeared out of nowhere, he didn't, and Brecht wanted to show how his rise to power happened, Castellan said.
“This is Brecht challenging me, just as much as everyone else, in terms of, ‘What am I doing to resist fascism today?’” Castellan said.
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