By Joel Pierson H-T Theater columnist | Nov 19, 2017
Bertolt Brecht was one of the most outspoken and distinctive figures in 20th century theater. Born in Germany, he later lived a life in exile in several Scandinavian countries and then the United States.
Author of such plays as “The Threepenny Opera” and “Mother Courage and her Children,” his Marxist views permeated his theatrical pursuits, making the theater a forum for political debate. His concept of “epic theater” invited audiences to reflect critically on what they were seeing and hearing, rather than forming emotional attachments with the characters on stage.
With these concepts in mind, Brecht wrote “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” in 1941, a satirical allegory for Hitler’s rise to power. Using characters with names strikingly similar to members of the World War II Nazi Party, Brecht weaves a tale of gangland Chicago in the 1930s, a time of violence, corruption and … cauliflower? Yes, the vegetable you sometimes leave on your plate is center stage in this production.
Arturo Ui is a mob boss who works to control the (apparently lucrative) Chicago cauliflower racket, using extreme measures and unchecked violence. In this way, the play tells of Hitler’s ascension and illustrates how it doesn’t take much for a tyrant and a bully to manipulate an entire people, transforming a democracy into an oppressive dictatorship. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about such things today. (Look … satire!)
IU Theatre presents “Arturo Ui” this month, with some surprises, courtesy of MFA director Liam Castellan. The first surprise is the director’s decision to cast the production gender blind. He explains, “My initial idea was that half of the cast would be women. Sticking with gender as written would have tied my hands in casting the most talented actors available. One of Brecht’s goals was to make the familiar strange. Cross-gender casting is a way to do that. By changing the gender of the villain, does it change the audience’s perception of the character?”
As a result, the traditionally male-dominated cast is comprised of 13 women and two men. Glynnis Kunkel-Ruiz plays the title role. She shared, “I am so excited to take on a role not usually played by a female actor. Arturo is such a dynamic character. In him we see what some people are willing to do for power and how that power changes them.”
Brecht’s style has been described as meta-theatrical. Castellan says, “I’m fascinated by how Brecht uses verse and other facets of epic drama to tell a modern story. Brecht uses the American gangster myth to take a fresh look at one of history’s greatest monsters, seeing through his infamy to explore the actual path he took to gain power.”
Whether you’re a Brechtian veteran or new to his distinctive style, an opportunity to see one of is works is always worth taking. In the hands of an innovative director, the play should make a very powerful statement about the dangers of fascism and groupthink.
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If you go
WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance
WHAT: “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” by Bertolt Brecht
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1, 2, 5-9; 2 p.m. Dec. 9
WHERE: Wells-Metz Theatre, 275 N. Jordan Ave.
TICKETS: $10-$20. Call 812-855-1103 or visit theatre.indiana.edu