Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
The lauded actor leads Classic Stage Company's revival of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Raúl Esparza's vibrant and diverse characterizations have earned him four Tony nominations in both musicals (Company, Taboo) and dramas (Speed-the-Plow, The Homecoming), while his Off-Broadway work runs the gamut from Jonathan Larson to Shakespeare. A six-year stint playing assistant district attorney Rafael Barba on TV's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit kept him off the boards, but now he's back as the title character in Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Classic Stage Company. A ruthless, Richard III-style, '30s Chicago gangster obsessed with controlling the cauliflower trade, Ui is the dramatist's stand-in for Hitler in this satirical allegory about Nazi Germany -- though audiences will inevitably think about contemporary world leaders, too. (It's no coincidence that during the last presidential election, there were three revivals of the play running simultaneously in NYC!) Esparza chatted with TDF Stages about reuniting with his Company director John Doyle, how his musical theatre background came in handy with Brecht and why he's definitely not playing Trump.
Frank Rizzo: After the show, I overheard you telling some students about how you first encountered Brecht's plays when you were at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.
Raúl Esparza: Brecht was one of those theoretical writers we were exposed to, but he didn't really appeal to me. My response at the time was, 'Oh, this is very cold theatre, very clever theatre.' I wanted to be an actor that swept you away, and I thought Brecht was often swallowed by the theory and the concepts that he introduced at the cost of audience engagement. Also, I was coming from a very specific political background, my family being Cuban immigrants. Growing up in Miami, there was nothing worse than communism, so the concepts of socialism and communism to me felt a little Pollyanna. Since then I've drunk the Kool-Aid, and I can't get over how many layers this play works on and how many colors it can encompass.
Rizzo: You haven't been on a New York stage in three years. Why did you decide to return in this role?
Esparza: Because it has something to say that, unfortunately, always seems to resonate in the world. Secondly, it was to work with John again. The play itself was maybe the third consideration.
Rizzo: How did you find your way into the role, given your earlier feelings about Brecht?
Esparza: That's tied up in the way John works. He lets you figure things out in the rehearsal room. He eases our way by doing scenes over and over and over again. It's almost rote repetition. You're not making decisions, you're not trying to achieve a result. You're just saying the lines again and again and again and that leads to a slow discovery of unexpected things. With John it's a process of eliminating, keeping what is most useful. You start really big and then find yourself pulling it in more and more and more until you find the one version that has the echoes of the other stuff you've played with.
John and I also looked at Francis Bacon's paintings, those tripped-out, screaming faces. There's something so essential about those images, and horrifying at the same time. What John is aiming for is, how do we find that? What is the gesture, what is that one thing that will make an audience go [Esparza lets out a strangled yell]? It doesn't sound like the most fun night in the theatre, but I think it's kind of thrilling.
Rizzo: Did you turn to any particular political figures for inspiration?
Esparza: I didn't go home and watch footage of Hitler or Trump or read about the Nazis. Sure, there's a way you can go with this play where it's all Trump Trump Trump Trump. But that seemed to me to be the wrong approach to take because it insults the audience's intelligence. People who are coming to this play know what they're in for. I don't think you casually go to see Brecht at CSC. What the play does assume is that the audience is very smart and will pick up the parallels without the cast having to hammer that in. Actually, the most useful thing I did to prepare for this was watch '30s gangster films, namely Public Enemy and Scarface, films Brecht would have seen and that he was riffing on. I can bring in lots of things and John will edit them and I trust him. Creating the big, bold Brechtian strokes is not my issue. It's the play's issue and it's John's. His goal is to present Brecht's vision as simply and as clearly as possible.
Rizzo: What has surprised you about the role?
Esparza: He's turned out to be a very different character than I thought. There's a vulnerability to him that fascinates me and that I didn't expect. The image that comes into my mind instead of Hitler is that of a stray dog that has been hit so much that he will love anyone who gives him kindness. But it becomes perverse and veers into a terrible place because he's fundamentally damaged and ferociously rabid.
Rizzo: Doyle's set design is minimalist yet powerful.
Esparza: John knew he wanted to have something that seemed like a detention center, like things we were seeing in the news where these [undocumented immigrant] families were being kept. He knew he wanted that wall, that fence that acts as a cage that separates the actors from the space and vice versa.
Rizzo: Do you think your experience in musicals came in handy when tackling Brecht?
Esparza: I think musical theatre performers have a leg up on the verse. We're not afraid of heightened language, how to speak on the line, how to breathe with the line. We know how to let rhythm take care of us and we can use one big breath to get one big idea across. Some of the most exciting people doing classical theatre tend to be people who can do musicals.
Rizzo: Many of your roles are in works that might be considered Brechtian in terms of their presentational style: Bobby in Company, Che in Evita, the Emcee in Cabaret.
Esparza: Company was a very Brechtian production. Hal [Prince], Steve [Sondheim] and George [Furth] created something very strange for a musical, something iconoclastic. The characters don't address the audience but the play is constantly breaking and commenting on itself. Evita was über Brecht and so was Hal's staging with light curtains, negative images, coffins, banners and the audience fully seeing the machinery of theatre.
Rizzo: You've also done Mamet. Does that help with Brecht? Though Mamet's characters are naturalistic there's something heightened about them, too.
Esparza: It's an interesting comparison. I did think a lot about Speed-the-Plow for this. David's writing is bravura, it's like jazz and you're riffing with the other actors and it's about speed and the rush of language. And here there's a very similar pacing and a ferocious level of language.
Rizzo: But in the end, it's about the ideas of the play, no?
Esparza: I think Brecht wants to make an audience think deeply -- and be a little disturbed.
Top image: Raul Esparza in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Photos by Joan Marcus.