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.

Triumphant “Frost/Nixon” Goes the Distance

Edwin Starr’s War is the perfect segue into Frost/Nixon which opens at the Blue Barn Theatre on Feb 4 for a war is what you will get.  Disgraced former President, Richard Nixon, verbally spars with talk show host, David Frost, in a series of in depth interviews in which only one man can emerge victorious.  For Nixon, it is a chance to resurrect his blasted political career.  For Frost, it is a chance to revive his dwindling TV career.

This play is good.

I mean it’s REALLY good.

Not only do I consider Frost/Nixon to be one of the best shows of the season, I also consider it to be one of the best (possibly the best) shows mounted on the Blue Barn’s stage.  Peter Morgan’s script crackles with taut, intense dialogue mixed with interesting characters that actors can really sink their teeth into and a story that will keep viewers enthralled from the first syllable to the final verbal riposte.

Randall Stevens’ direction and staging are dead on accurate as his actors weave the story of the setup, preparation, and execution of, arguably, the greatest political interview of all time.  His actors know their beats, fully realize their characters, and have the best diction I have ever heard out of a cast.

While a great deal of the play does focus around Frost and Nixon, the show’s supporting cast deserves recognition for their rock solid performances.

Matthias Jeske is especially impressive as John Birt, the producer of the interviews.  With ramrod posture and a spot-on accent, Jeske is indeed very, very British, but his delivery adds a warmth and friendship to the character as he tries to ready Frost for the upcoming conflict.  Dave Wingert does well with his interpretation of Bob Zelnick, the editor of the interviews.  Wingert bestows a genuine likability on Zelnick and expertly communicates Zelnick’s ability to navigate the morass of politics’ underbelly.  Brent Spencer has a nice turn as slimy agent, Swifty Lazar, who is devoted to getting as much money for Nixon, and himself, as possible.

Ben Beck is marvelous as James Reston.  Reston has no love for Nixon and is bound and determined to see him pay for his crimes and abuses of power.  This is a role that could easily gravitate to the obvious choice of anger, but, in Beck’s capable hands, it becomes a clinic in nuanced acting.  Beck plays the role of Reston with a quiet intensity.  His hatred for Nixon actually seeps from his pores, but he is never angry.  He simply wants justice.  This need for justice falls just shy of getting Nixon at any cost, but Beck ably shows the intellectual side of Reston as he constantly searches for the smoking gun needed to pry an admission of guilt from Nixon’s clamped jaws.

On the other side is James Brennan, Nixon’s chief of staff, and played with confident assuredness by Mike Markey.  Brennan and Reston make for interesting mirror images as Reston’s hunger for Nixon’s punishment is matched by Brennan’s staunch loyalty to and protectiveness of the former President.  Markey plays Brennan with a military preciseness.  I truly enjoyed his eagerness as he fully believes the Frost interviews will get Nixon back in the political game.  His loyalty is also unimpeachable as he tries to protect Nixon by attempting to get Frost to log all of Nixon’s failings under Watergate and buying his boss valuable time during the climactic final interview with Frost.

Ultimately, this play does need to be supported by the two lead actors and Stevens found two mighty thespians to carry the burden of this production in the forms of Aaron Zavitz and Paul Boesing.  One could not envision better casting as the chemistry between Zavitz and Boesing seems so right.  At times friends of a sort and at others, bitter rivals, Zavitz and Boesing decisively explore the many levels of their own characters and their unique relationship and present it to the audience in a storytelling masterpiece.

Boesing not only has a firm grip on Nixon’s mannerisms, but he also bears an uncanny resemblance to the controversial politician.  Boesing’s Nixon is the politician’s politician.  He oozes a charm that almost borders on insincerity and is prepared for almost any contingency.  He easily bats off inconvenient questions by tooting his own horn and is quite adept at turning dangerous situations to his own advantage.

But Boesing also makes you feel real sympathy for Nixon in the rare moments when Nixon takes his mask off.  For all of his political savvy, Nixon never felt likable despite choosing a profession where that quality is essential.  His body language is also spectacular, especially when the life slowly bleeds from his body when Frost finally gets his fingers around Nixon’s proverbial throat.

Aaron Zavitz mesmerizes with his interpretation of David Frost.  Zavitz’s Frost is a gadfly.  He is simply a talk show host with an ability to hold real, albeit simple, conversations.  He is not a hard-hitting investigative journalist.  He picks Nixon as an interview subject solely to save his dying career.  Zavitz’s Frost claims he can wring a confession from Nixon, but has no plan in how to do so.

Zavitz’s finest moments come during the interview sessions with Nixon.  Markey’s Brennan compares the interviews to a boxing match in which the challenger finds himself sorely outclassed at the beginning and I found that apropos as Zavitz convincingly portrays a man who is out of his depth.  His body language well conveyed his uncertainty and doubt with slumped shoulders and laid back posture as Nixon controls the tempo of the interviews.

That all changes with a nighttime phone conversation that galvanizes Frost.  Zavitz demonstrates this newfound strength by standing straighter, expanding his chest, and adopting a firmer sitting posture during the last interview.  That final interview is truly an actor’s, not to mention audience member’s, delight as Zavitz’s Frost takes the fight to Nixon with haymaker questions to K.O. Nixon once and for all.

Martin Marchitto’s TV studio set is a perfect match for the setting of this show and the actors are well costumed by Lindsey Pape.  Bill Grennan’s projections also enhance the story as the images are projected onto a gigantic television on Marchitto’s set.

I was fortunate to be permitted to see a technical rehearsal of this show and I tell you now, I’ve seen full productions that haven’t had as much polish.  The few missteps in tonight’s performance were simply the ones one would expect to see as the show goes through its final tweaks.  As hard as it may be to believe, this show is actually going to become more amazing than it already is as Stevens and his crew continue to tidy and tighten things.  The Feb 6 show is already sold out, so buy a ticket before the rest of them vanish.

When pushed to the edge one either finds the strength to win or gets shoved off the cliff.  When two people pushed to the same edge duel, only one can survive.  Frost/Nixon presents that struggle in the most definitive and triumphant fashion imaginable.

Frost/Nixon plays at the Blue Barn Theatre from Feb 4-28.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm.  There is no show on Feb 7. Tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), T.A.G. members, and groups of 10 or more.  For reservations call 402-345-1576 from 10am-4pm Mon-Fri or visit their website at www.bluebarn.org.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.