What Have We Learned?

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Nils Haaland stars as Arturo Ui in “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” at the Blue Barn Theatre

A lowly gangster rises to power in Chicago with the conquering of the greengrocery trade.  This is the story of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht and is currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Yes, I realize the plot sounds like a comedy, but it’s not.  This play is a satire on the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and is actually one of the gutsiest pieces of literature ever written as Brecht wrote it in 1941, shortly after Hitler gained ascendancy in Europe.

This play is vintage Blue Barn as it is challenging, make you think theatre with an experimental flavor.  Brecht has a very real/unreal style to his writing and you may find the story a bit confusing.  However, there is a detailed explanation on what to expect from the production in the program and moments from Hitler’s rise to power are projected onto a screen after every major scene to demonstrate the parallels between the play and reality.

I don’t think Susan Clement-Toberer could give flawed direction even if she tried.  Once more, her gift for nuance and character shows itself in a tour de force effort.  The staging is quite clever as she manages to fit her rather large cast onto the narrow dock that is Martin Scott Marchitto’s set.  I found the use of video footage to parallel Ui and Hitler to be quite beneficial and she once again leads a powerhouse cast to a series of strong performances.

While largely an ensemble piece, this show rests on the shoulders of the actor playing Arturo Ui and one could not find a better choice for the role than Nils Haaland.  Haaland once again throws himself into a role as he utterly transforms himself into Ui.  He nimbly handles the long and difficult wordplay of Ui with astonishing ease and displays new facets of the character almost every time you blink.

Haaland is just a sad piece of work at the play’s start as he laments being a common criminal out of the public eye.  Once he finds an in to the greengrocery trade, Haaland evolves (perhaps devolves?) Ui from a two bit hood to an inhuman monster as his power base grows.  The fleeting signs of humanity Haaland shows at the beginning of the show rapidly vanish as he is willing to betray and kill allies and friends to achieve his dream of conquering the nation.

Mike Markey does a superior piece of character acting as Old Dogsborough.  Markey hides his fitness well as the elderly, infirm Dogsborough who unintentionally provides Ui the means to start taking over the greengrocery trade.  Markey does an excellent job showing an extremely honest man buckle under the temptation of material gain.  From there, Markey’s body language shows a man slowly dying a living death as his body sags and collapses with each future appearance due to his guilt of letting Ui get his hooks into him due to one greedy choice.

Daena Schweiger’s performance as Emanuelle Giri is not to be missed.  Ms Schweiger is chilling as the psychopathic Giri who’s notable for a fetish for hats and a piercing, knifelike laugh.  Her Giri has no redeeming qualities and possesses a lust for power not unlike Ui’s own as she plots the death of a rival in Ui’s camp.

Jens Rasmussen makes his mark with his Blue Barn debut as Givola, another crony of Ui.  Rasmussen’s sense of movement is second to none as he has grace and fluidity which is all the more impressive given the beautiful limp he gives his character.  Rasmussen’s performance is quite memorable as he makes his Givola a potent blend of oily suck-up and Machiavelli.

Other strong ensemble performances come from Brennan Thomas who plays Ui’s right hand man, Ernesto Roma.  Roma’s penchant for danger and violence is matched only by his extreme loyalty to Ui.  One could argue that he is Ui’s one true friend which means absolutely nothing to that animal in human clothing.  Jennifer Gilg also shines in several character roles, but is particularly good as Betty Dullfleet, a criminal from another city who tries to stop Ui’s rise, but ultimately succumbs to his will.  J.J. Davis provides a bit of welcome levity as Ted Ragg, a reporter who bravely needles Ui.  Paul Boesing’s rich voice is suited to his roles as the show’s narrator and a classical actor who teaches poise and presence to Ui.

The Blue Barn clearly felt that the circumstances that led to Hitler’s rise are present in today’s political atmosphere with some subtle references in the actor’s costumes and a rather charged and colorful closing speech from Haaland.  It’s truly spooky to think that an evil like Hitler was able to rise to power and nearly won.  It’s even spookier to think that the present world climate could give rise to another like him.  As the play’s title suggests, Hitler could have been resisted.  As you watch this play and see what it tries to teach, ask yourself, “What have we learned?”

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui plays at the Blue Barn through October 16.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm.  There is no show on Sept 25.  Tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), T.A.G. members, and groups of ten or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576 from 10am-4pm Mon-Fri or visit www.bluebarn.org.  Due to strong language and adult situations, this show is not recommended for children.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th Street in Omaha, NE.

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