Pictured Above: Murdered informants begin to stack up outside Chicago City Hall. | Julia Cappiello photo for NFCT
Kudos to the North Fork Community Theatre for embracing Bertolt Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” this spring. Everywhere we go, we hear a chorus of people saying they can’t believe they are able to see this kind of theater close to home, and the enthusiastic crowd at the Sunday matinee opening weekend bodes well for the willingness of the community at large to embrace this production.
This seldom-produced play is the story of a gang of mobsters as they work to control the Illinois cauliflower trade, but it is also a blatant allegory for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s. This sounds heavy, but it’s saved by its absurdity.
The play is also told in blank verse, the language of The Bard, which is no small feat given that it’s also a translation. Brecht wrote it in his native German, albeit for an American audience, and it was later translated to English by George Tabori.
It would take a Shakespearian ensemble to pull off this piece of epic theater, and a Shakespearian ensemble is just what director Colin Palmer has gathered. It’s quite a delight to see local actors we’ve seen in many Shakespeare productions bring their skills at deciphering iambic pentameter to the caricatures of midwestern mobsters. It’s oddly more accessible than Shakespeare. Americans know wiseguys. They are our folk heroes. And this play is actually quite funny.
Be warned: “Ui” is long, clocking in at over three hours with intermission, but it is worth the time. Everyone on stage is committed to telling a compelling story.
Some highlights: Alan Stewart as The Actor who attempts to give Arturo Ui outrageous lessons in public speaking. Tom Ciorciari as Ui, a “simple son of Brooklyn” with a hideous Hitler mustache and a big chip on his shoulder. Christian Lepore, sensitive and relatable as both “honest” mayor Dogsborough and doomed newspaperman Dulfeet. Georgia Ciaputo, forlorn as Dulfeet’s grieving widow and sassy as a Chicago cub reporter. Dennis Creighton as gangster Ernesto Roma, the epitome of thuggery. Colin Palmer pinch hitting for North Fork Shakespearian mainstay A.D. Newcomer as the absurd gangster Giuseppi “The Florist” Givola. We wish Ms. Newcomer a speedy recovery in the hopes she can return to a role in which she’s sure to shine. Bill Gardiner is also memorable as the tongue-tied patsy “Fish” and the quickly-offed shipping tycoon “Sheet.”
The black box set lets the blocking and lighting stand out, with characters arrayed across the stage in positions that serve as shorthand for the way power moves through groups.
The costuming is perfect “period gangster” wear, and there are several lovely carafes of whiskey to be swilled. But rolling black office tables and chairs send things on the road to absurdity, along with ever-present newspapers with no words printed on them. At one point the thugs walk onstage with huge plastic gasoline cans that look like they just came off the shelf at Home Depot. The jugs are jarring for a minute and then they just click. What the heck time period is any of this taking place in, anyway?
Bertolt Brecht is known for having said that “art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,” and he wields this hammer heavily, with stage directions that include title cards between scenes instructing the audience which events in German history are represented by the preceding scene. German Brechtian theater companies often dispense with the title cards, said Mr. Palmer in a talk-back after the show, because Germans know their own history. Americans, however, do not know the intimate details of German history, and that’s really the point of “Arturo Ui.”
While the historical updates can be heavy-handed, the production benefits from innovative use of the theater’s new video wall. Video Consultant Mark Heidemann provided great access to archival footage from Nazi Germany from Historic Films Archives in Greenport to highlight the history lessons, and Video Designer Tim Ferris’s innovative 16-millimeter style filming of a scene involving the ghost of a gangster is top-notch.
The idea of art as a hammer to shape reality pervades this production, straight down to the choice of Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs songs piped in as background music during intermission.
No mention is made of the current American political climate — this is intentional on the part of the cast and crew — but the play’s closing line, recited by all, in chorus, with emphasis, sums it up: “Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard, The bitch that bore him is in heat again…”
There are many corners of this country where tyranny can grow deep roots. In the end, it’s our own backyards where we can have the most impact on ensuring this doesn’t happen. We’re glad this show has put down roots here.
“The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” continues at the North Fork Community Theatre, 12700 Old Sound Avenue in Mattituck through April 2, with Friday and Saturday showtimes at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 and are available at nfct.com.