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A Bertolt Brecht classic speaks to this election
The presidential election has a way of bringing drama to everyday life. With each scandal, poll, or press conference comes a new and fiery vision of the Apocalypse—probably while you're reading the news over your morning bowl of Cheerios.
Small wonder, then, that Election Day can imbue certain plays with greater urgency. This year, that certainly rings true for Bertolt Brecht's 1941 parable, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.
In the play, Brecht envisions 1930s Chicago as a town of greengrocers and mobsters. Ui is a gangster who offers his illicit services to the mayor and eventually takes control of the Windy City himself. In the end, he forces a merger between Chicago's Cauliflower Trust and the vegetable trade in nearby Cicero. The thug celebrates this deal as his first step toward global domination.
As you may have guessed, Ui's ascent is a thinly veiled retelling of Hitler's rise to power in 1933, his annexation of Austria in 1938, and his blitzkrieg dreams of a Thousand Year Reich.
But Noam Shapiro, director of Lyra Theater's production (running from October 22nd to November 5th at St. George's Church), sees the play as far more than an allegory about Hitler. "The play uses Hitler's rise as a kind of template for the rise of a demagogue writ large," he says.
Ui does indeed engage in demagoguery. He casts himself as the savior of Chicago, the protector who has rid the streets of crime and restored law and order. Since the play takes place in America, Shapiro adds, "Brecht challenges us to think about a demagogue in our own midst."
In fact, all three productions explicitly mean to warn us about the same perceived demagogue in our midst. His name is Donald Trump.
It's no accident the theatres have chosen to mount their productions right before Election Day. They regard Trump as a grave threat to democracy, and they want to remind audiences that his rise—like Ui's—is 100% resistible. All we have to do is vote for another candidate and persuade others to do the same. "As much as Donald Trump wants us to believe that the election will be rigged, the election will be decided by the American people," says Shapiro.
Of course,the high supply of Uis might exceed demand. But James Masciovecchio, director of Cave Theatre Co.'s production (running from October 6th to 16th at UNDER St. Mark's), points out that the shows are spread over the course of five weeks and rarely have overlapping performances. Playgoers could easily see all three if they wanted.
Plus, all these artists simultaneously choosing to warn against Trump only amplifies the admonition. As Masciovecchio says: "You've got three companies screaming, 'Look at what's happening!'"
He expects that mostly liberals will be present to hear his troupe sound the alarm, and he admittedly doubts the production will change the minds of many Trump supporters. Nevertheless, he adds, "I would be super happy to see a Trump supporter [in the audience], because it means that they're looking at things from a different perspective. They're at least going out and engaging, which is something that—especially in the internet culture vacuum—people don't necessarily do."
Despite this extreme topicality, all three directors stress that Brecht's play calls for vigilance among the electorate at all times, not just at this moment. "The point of the play is bigger than any one election," says Kevin Confoy, director of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble's production. This explains why the company planned its run the way it did. Showing at the Wild Project from October 20th to November 13th, it's the only one of the three to continue beyond Election Day.
"The fact that we go both before and after the election plants the play, and our production, firmly in a universal, larger context," says Confoy. Stay on guard, he cautions. Another Ui could run at any time and anywhere. "It's waiting to happen again."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for the Phoenix Theatre and Cave Theatre productions. Go here to browse our latest offers.
Gavin Whitehead is a dramaturg and writer based in New Haven.
Top photo: Craig Smith as Arturo Ui in Phoenix Theatre Ensemble's production. (Photo by Kerem SmithStone). Rehearsal photo provided by Cave Theatre Co.