“From Bum to Tyrant in 13 Easy Steps.”
No Nazi death camps, allusions to Trump, or the satisfaction of watching Hitler’s demise. These are absent in the Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance’s production of “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” by Bertolt Brecht. One reason is that the play, written in 1941, focuses on Hitler’s rise. We see what happened to inspire — and allow — him to gain monstrous impact. Brecht substitutes Chicago and its vegetable market for Germany, Cicero for Austria and a gang of 1930s thugs for the Nazi party.
The play, both stark and at times very funny, makes many references to Brecht’s revered Shakespeare, most notably “Richard III.” As Richard lived in a time of instability, so did Hitler — with Germany’s deplorable financial situation in the early 1900s — and so does Arturo Ui. Chicagoans are struggling to buy vegetables on their low incomes, crooks are threatening the vegetable sellers and additional crooks are turning opportunity to gold by forcing the vegetable vendors to pay for “protection.” Ui says, “They’d rather buy a cabbage than a coffin.”
Director Liam Castellan has gathered a fine cast to tell Brecht’s story. And, seeking to use many of the best performers he has available this year, has cast most of the male characters with females. It works beautifully, and before the second scene, I had completely adjusted to feminine forms with flowing hair depicting testosterone-drenched hyper-males.
The action begins with a charmingly kooky Courtney Reid Harris as the MC explaining to the audience — Brecht believed in including the viewers — what is about to happen. Later, she also gives us a splendid grieving (not) widow and concerned (not) mother of “a boy of four … a, a, a boy of five.” Arturo Ui is played by a vivaciously frightening Glynnis Kunkel-Ruiz and has many of the show’s most poignant lines. We watch her Ui go from uncouth, insecure robber to crowd pleasing, polished public speaker.
I wanted to leap onto stage and say, “Stop her, everybody, before she gets too far.” And that is Brecht’s point: we allow and enable bad guys, and when we finally catch on, it’s too late for control or reversal. Sheet (Carina Lastimosa) describes looking into a murky pond: “They could be twigs, but, no, they’re snakes.”
And the snakes they are a comin’.
Early on, Roma (a convincing Ellise Chase) tells Ui, “No one cares enough to bump you off.” It’s true; no one is paying attention. But by the finale, Ui rants, “Chicago’s in the bag, but I want more!”
Two actors stand out in this proficient lot. Mia Siffin is nearly brilliant as the third-rate actor hired to give Ui lessons in elocution and stage presence. She is also heart-rending as a wounded woman reporting a shot-up truck. As Giri, Nathaniel Kohlmeier had me laughing at first, as he shook hands with audience members and generally portrayed the swellhead. Oh, but what he becomes as Ui’s trusted and untrustworthy sidekick!
Athena Kopulos is creepily believable as the wheelchair-bound Dogsborough, finally kowtowing horribly to Ui’s sadism. I enjoyed Alexa Lively’s realistic Butcher, and Brantley Goodrich gripped me as the resistant, doomed O’Casey and again as the drugged and vilified Fish. Eleanor Sobczyk was an eerie flower-peddling Givola, sending bouquets to his next victim.
Brecht arranged for prescient signs between scenes, which director Castellan posts on the backdrop: “All Press Is Good Press, So Use It”; “You’re on Your Way! Cut Any Ties You’ve Outgrown”; and maybe the scariest, “From Bum to Tyrant in 13 Easy Steps.”
So, we applaud and go home, and over the years we read, and watch, and say, “How could this or that have happened?”
This is how.
If You Go
WHERE: Wells-Metz Theatre, 275 N. Jordan Ave.
WHEN: Tuesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; 2 p.m. Saturday.
TICKETS: $5-$20; 812-855-1103; http://www.theatre.indiana.edu.