Photo by Ned Averill-Snell
Derrick Phillips in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Jobsite Theater in Tampa, Florida.
German playwright Bertolt Brecht, a 20th Century theatrical giant, saw the writing on the wall soon after Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933. He left Berlin and kicked around the capitals of Europe for the rest of the decade until settling in Helsinki while awaiting a U.S. visa. It was there in 1941 that he penned the satire, “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” a thinly-veiled parable in the guise of a Depression era tale with Hollywood gangsters standing in for Nazis as he connects crony capitalism (via the cauliflower trade) and militarism.
Jobsite Theater has mounted a very funny, fast-as-the-wind production that’s 100 minutes without intermission. Director David Jenkins clearly has an inspired vision for the material and his miraculous design team Brian Smallhear (scenery), Jo Averill-Snell (lighting), Katrina Stevenson (costumes), and Jeremy Douglas (sound) is perfectly in sync. The staging is simple and fluid, but always striking. Everyone deserves a tip on the hat for attention to detail, but Douglas, particularly, has created atmospheric underscoring unusual in the theater that’s consistently unsettling.
There are 35 characters portrayed by eight actors; nothing is lost by the extremely talented ensemble (Colleen Cherry, Giles Davies, Spencer Meyers, Andresia Moseley, Blake Smallen, Katrina Stevenson, and Hugh Timoney). While Jenkins has succeeded in creating brilliant synchronicity with his designers, his acting company of Jobsite stalwarts, while formidable, is just not all in the same play. With these divergent acting styles, the result is that what is potentially great, ends up merely good. Brecht begins with a prologue in verse. The actors are larger than life, the movement is cartoonish and in your face. Because the space is spare, there’s a slight reverb in the Shimberg which initially competes with Douglas’s oompah underscoring driven by pizzicato strings. It’s not necessary to exaggerate here. Stylization doesn’t demand declamation; so much is going on at times that the audience may feel assaulted. Perhaps that’s the intent, but it seems to me that here, less is more. Give the crowd a chance to rest as it settles into the parable. The exaggerations and cartoonish movement that soared in “Shockheaded Peter” in the larger Jaeb, overwhelm here. Luckily, we quickly move from burlesque to sharp-edged parody.
One challenge for an 80-year-old play is that even satirical violence registers differently for a modern audience. We’ve become inured to every gangster trope. Not only have The Godfather and The Sopranos been absorbed into popular culture, but we accept ongoing gun violence as a given. Sadly, under these circumstances, the mounting death toll isn’t visceral, but intellectual. Luckily, sometimes it’s so casual as to be humorous.
Derrick Phillips (Arturo Ui) has proven himself an effective/evocative actor in many of our local theaters. His Arturo Ui is “a simple son of Brooklyn,” but he acknowledges that “I can see ahead.” Unfortunately, he has a happy countenance without a developing sense of menace. I kept expecting a burst of unhinged bile that was never forthcoming.
Photo by Ned Averill-Snell
Andresia Moseley (center) in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Jobsite Theater in Tampa, Florida.
One of Brecht’s more inspired scenes is bringing in a Shakespearean actor (Ms. Cherry in a green beret) to teach Ui how to mesmerize a crowd. We see the transformation from awkward pupil to confident con man as he develops the high-kicking goose step and the Seig Heil salute while declaiming Marc Antony. But, now fully-armed as he enters the Cauliflower Trust offices, he fails to embody the threat his new tools could provide.
At the climax, when we get a full breathtaking historical Hitler image before a giant microphone, I thought we’d finally arrive at an unhinged crescendo—a Reichstag moment of full barking insanity and demagoguery. Alas, we never get the demented terror that would put an exhilarating exclamation point before the epilogue. And the final transition to the Brechtian admonishment that follows is over before we know it.
Still, you’ll come away from this entertaining gangster vaudeville knowing, as Jenkins reminds in his director’s note, that “democracy is complicated, ugly, and difficult. It's also precious and incredibly fragile.” It’s our personal responsibility to stand up to the political con men in our midst. Authoritarians are watching closely to see if there are significant consequences for the Jan. 6 insurrection, one of the darkest days in our history that too many wish to sweep under the rug. We have our own Orbáns, Le Pens, Erdoğans and Putins with their eyes on 2024. The survival of our democracy is up to you. Brecht’s epilogue cautions “though we managed to stop the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”