The J-Files: First encounter

Episode 1 of the Director’s Desk Series: James Nelson on Machinal
M.F.A. James Nelson returns to the blog with a journey into the world of Sophie Treadwell’s

“So, what I’m hearing you say is that my proposals have all been thrown out?”

It was fall of 2016 when I met with my advisor to check in about the 2017-2018 IU Theatre season. As a MFA director, I’m slated to direct a production in the mainstage season during my second year, but the process of selecting which show that might be is rather complicated. A committee of about a dozen people from across the faculty (with representatives from the student body) assembles weekly for nearly the entire fall semester and starts vetting all the submissions they receive. Each director is asked to propose three shows they would be interested in, but there’s no guarantee that any of them will be selected, and there’s plenty of suggestions from the different areas and directly from the students to consider as well.

I was feeling pretty confident with the three shows I put forward in my proposals, so I was quite surprised to hear that they had all been shot down for various reasons. “I just don’t think it’s a good play,” my advisor told me frankly about one of them. For another one, “We don’t think we should be doing as many plays with music”. The third – my favorite play of all time, a play that’s been close to my heart since I was young, a play that ruminates on the loneliness of displaced souls – was dismissed with “it just feels dated”.

Compounding my disappointment was that it was too late in the process to come back with new proposals, so I had to look at titles that were still under consideration and had some momentum from the committee. The first couple things I was asked to look at weren’t promising, and it was time for my own blunt feedback. “I don’t feel any sense of joy in the play, it’s very humorless and bleak”, I wrote about one of them. “I think the direction of this play would be largely figuring out how to make the tech work, which arguably isn’t the most inspiring challenge for a student director,” I stated about another. And, more straightforwardly, “I can’t believe this is in consideration for our season. Can you imagine putting our audiences through this?” about a third.

Then I was asked to look at Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, a play I had heard of but had never read or seen staged. I sat down with the text, desperately hopeful that I would like it. The entirety of the first scene of the play is fragmented non-realistic dialogue delivered in a spitfire sequence that only makes a glimpse of sense in the first pass, ending with a two-page stream-of-consciousness monologue, delivered one or two words at a time, reminiscent of something out of a late Beckett play (which postdates Machinal, to be fair). It was exactly the kind of material that I struggle to like, as a director or an audience member.

But there was something very different about the first scene of Machinal. There was a piercing voice of despair silently crying out for help between the words on the page, a palpable helplessness that underscored the action. I was a bit confused, but I was more intrigued and excited. As I continued to read the rest of the play, Treadwell’s world revealed itself in surprising and disturbing ways, and my mind was racing with theatrical possibilities. There is so much here, I thought. You can do so much with this play.

When I finished reading the play, I turned back to the first page and began again. The first reading pulled me in, the second one gripped me. I became instantly and deeply compelled by the work and wanted the chance to explore it further. It was far out of my comfort zone as a director, but the challenges the play presented were exactly what I wanted to take on during my graduate training. I met with my advisor the next day and pleaded that he express my interest in the play to the committee. After a couple more weeks of silence, it was confirmed for the season, and would be the first main stage show I direct at IU.

I probably whispered “yes!” to myself a hundred times. Maybe I cried a little too.

James Nelson is a second year M.F.A. student in directing. In the San Francisco Bay Area, James has directed for Custom Made Theatre Company, Ross Valley Players, Masquers Playhouse, FaultLine Theater, Dragon Productions, Novato Theater Company, and others. He was previously the artistic director of the Anglo-Irish Theatre Group in Tübingen, Germany, where he directed productions of Equus, Translations, The Pillowman, And Then There Were None, Black Comedy, and Romeo and Juliet.

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H-T REVIEW: Noble Romans are roamin’ the stage, and Caesar’s seizin’ applause

By Connie Shakalis | H-T Reviewer Jan 21, 2018

Meaghan Deiter plays Julius Caesar during a rehearsal Tuesday in Bloomington. Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times

With friends like these, who needs enemies? And, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, to succeed is to “endure the betrayal of false friends.” Although Julius Caesar doesn’t endure, but succumbs, to his pernicious pals, in effect he (she, in IU’s production) wins anyway. Her murderers all die agonizing deaths, and Caesar’s ghost gets to wander around, gloating.

William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” could have used Jane Austen’s play’s title “Persuasion,” in that Caesar and nearly all the other characters spend most of their time delivering hearty, persuasive speeches to one another. Some scholars have noted that the play is really a series of character sketches and monologues. As in all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, we learn about people: what we want, disdain and fear and how we go about gaining or avoiding it.

The play is more about Brutus and Cassius than Caesar, and we watch as these two best friends unite against their common friend-turned-enemy, Caesar: After all, when peers rise too high, how unsavory they become. Brutus and Cassius, however, are doomed by their own moral deafness and military mistakes.

Justino Brokaw as Caius Cassius and Michael Bayler as Marcus Brutus

This production of “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” by IU’s Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance kept me riveted. Justino Brokaw plays Cassius as his third-year MFA thesis role, and he is divine, nearly nabbing the night. Oh, if only Brutus had believed him about not allowing Mark Antony to speak at Caesar’s funeral! Gives meaning to the old “when you assume,” you make an ass-out-of-U- & -M-E.

Brutus, why did you assume Antony was telling you the truth when he swore to speak calmly and unprovokingly to the plebeians about Caesar’s murder? Michael Bayler, who was such a marvelously goofy Black Stache in last fall’s “Peter and the Starcatcher,” is equally intense as Brutus, in a very different way. He is the only conspirator who loves, instead of merely envies, Caesar, and I felt his torment as he was persuaded to help kill her. Pondering Caesar’s growing ambition, he worries, “How that (power) might change her nature.” He damns not her but her “abuse of greatness.”

As Mark Antony, Nicholas Jenkins, another third-year MFA thesis student, was heart-rending, and I knew he was devastated at Caesar’s fate. His Antony is the kind of friend I want. Meaghan Deiter made a powerful and regal Caesar, and I slipped right into believing her, regardless of the gender switch.

Nicholas Jenkins as Mark Antony

As Decia, Tess Cunningham is in her cunning glory, and this is my favorite of the roles I’ve seen her play. She wriggles her way into Caesar’s head, and is she ever mean. As Casca, Matthew Waterman gave us some levity with his “rudeness and wit,” which we needed. In a less than light moment, he has the privilege of starting the massacre; I cringed. Shai Warfield-Cross was a beautiful, tender Portia. Although I longed for the (excluded here) part where she shows husband Brutus her self-inflicted thigh wound (to prove her soldier-like worthiness to hear his secrets), I liked her grace.

Sound designer Andrew Hopson’s eerily anachronistic sounds include helicopters and machine guns and lent a frightening — like who needed more fear? — ambience. Direction by Jenny McKnight had the audience leaning forward throughout and cheering at the end.

Ambitious people, like Caesar, Brutus, Cassius and Antony, shine most brightly among ambitious people. Talent shines amid talent. This production, with its wide-ranging cast, has plenty of both.

If You Go

WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.

WHAT: “Julius Caesar,” written by William Shakespeare, directed by Jenny McKnight.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Ruth N. Halls Theatre, 275 N. Jordan Ave.

TICKETS: $5-$20; 812-855-1103,

Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times. For more theatre reviews and arts news, visit

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Theatre Geek of The Week: Mac Van Tassel

Theatre Geek of the Week is an IU Theatre blog series where you can meet some of the students, faculty and supporters of IU’s Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance!

1. What do yoSnapchat-699507929(1)u do at IU, and why do you do it?

I am a student creating my own major in Theatre Production and Design. I also am the Electrics Manager for the Studio Theatre and a member of the Electrics Crew for the Theatre. I love creating and I love art. I always wanted to be a painter or visual artist but was absolutely awful at it. Once I realized that I can create and paint with light on people, architecture, etc, I knew that that was what I wanted to be a part of.

2. When did first you realize you were a theatre geek?

I think I knew I was a geek for it all when I was crawling around underneath a platform at my high school, screwing it all together. It was the most fun I had ever had in the first year and a half of my high school career.

3. What is your favorite thing about the theatre, and why?

My favorite thing about theatre is working with so many creative minds that come from so many different backgrounds. Every creative mind that you would work with expands yours and makes your perspective towards your work that much more creative and dynamic.

4. What is one project you’ve undertaken at IU that has taught you the most?

I would say designing Joe Schmoe Saves the World was an amazing eye opening experience. I was thrown in and frankly in way over my head. I would say I learned a lot about where I am as a designer and electrician and my personal tastes and styles as well.


IU Summer Theatre Joe Schmoe Saves the World

5. When no one is watching, what song do you love to dance or sing along with?

Face Down by The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus

6. Who in the theatre world inspires you, and why?

I am inspired by Bridget Williams, a recent Lighting Design MFA graduate here at IU. She was the first designer I ever assisted and the first to really take me under her wing and show me what it was going to take to get this done. She and Tony Stoeri, 3rd year graduate student, both push me creatively. They are constantly convincing me to experiment and make bold decisions. I strive to be as thoughtful and creative as they are.

7. Do you have any words of advice for new theatre students?

Get involved! Dont wait! Hit the ground running and you will be better prepared for the long haul. Life is short but college is shorter, so do what you can while you can. Be prepared to be disappointed in your work, to look at a performance or a design and be frustrated, or even upset. But take that and use it to fuel you. Strive to push yourself every day. The worst thing you could do would be to tell yourself you’ve learned everything.

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H-T FEATURE: Women take center stage in IU production of ‘Julius Caesar’

By Jenny Porter Tilley |  Jan 17, 2018

Meaghan Deiter plays Julius Caesar during a rehearsal Tuesday in Bloomington. (Jeremy Hogan | Herald Times)

“A new day is on the horizon,” Oprah Winfrey said, in a statement that ended with a standing ovation, as she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement earlier this month at the Golden Globes.

Winfrey spoke directly to young girls watching, telling them they too could be leaders in the entertainment industry. As public accounts of sexism and sexual assault continue to emerge, pressure is growing to provide more and bigger roles for women.

But there’s another way to give female actors more opportunities: By casting them in roles traditionally given to men, starting with texts written centuries ago. It’s happening with Indiana University’s upcoming production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” opening Friday at IU’s Ruth N. Halls Theatre.

Meaghan Deiter, who plays the title role, is thrilled to get to say one of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare’s work: “Et tu, Brute?”

“I get to say that, which is really cool,” Deiter said. “It traditionally wouldn’t have been available for a woman to say or play the role.”

In its original form, the play has only two roles for women, both of whom are wives of other characters. The rest of the roles — 39 of them — are for men. It makes sense, considering many of the scenes involve governmental officials and people in battle, which would have been all men at the time.

Director Jenny McKnight

In director Jenny McKnight’s cut of the play coming to IU, there are 21 actors. She cast eight women, some in roles traditionally played by men, instead of casting the 19 men and two women the scenes she chose would require.

“This is happening more, and I think it’s a cool opportunity for women,” Deiter said. It’s not her first time playing a Shakespeare part originally written for a man, either. In “The Tempest” last spring, she played the role of King Alonso, which was recast as a queen.

Bloomington audiences were exposed to another twist in casting Shakespeare’s works in 2016, when Cardinal Stage Co.’s production of “The Merchant of Venice” featured women playing all the roles, portraying both men and women.

When McKnight began auditioning actors for “Caesar,” she didn’t come into it with a plan to cast the title character as a woman. But she did create a couple of composite characters who she planned to be women, based on multiple characters in Shakespeare’s original play.

“This play was written in 1599,” McKnight said. “It’s been produced a billion times. I can’t imagine anything that we’re doing hasn’t been tried before.” Rather than trying to do something groundbreaking, she’s focused on the experience Bloomington audiences will get from the production — including theater and English students who may come to the show to fulfill a requirement for a class.

“How do we get those students excited and hooked into Shakespeare? We make it unexpected,” she said. “They expect to see a bunch of white guys in togas, but then see something else.” She hopes they’ll sit forward in their seats a little and take notice.

Students of theater working with historical texts are familiar with the skew toward roles for white men. IU’s Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance strives to plan seasons with diversity in style, content and available roles, according to chairman Jonathan Michaelsen.

“We want to make sure we aren’t doing things that are so male-dominated that we don’t have enough roles for women,” he said. “Then we try to take on pieces that are diverse culturally and reflect the world as much as we can.”

Planning a season this way means not necessarily eliminating historical plays that should be a part of an actor’s curriculum, but instead rethinking them, often using colorblind and gender-blind casting methods.

It’s not uncommon for theater instructors to have women playing men’s roles and vice versa in class, McKnight said. But most of the time, “it happens as a classroom exercise, but not as a full-blown production,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to do in that realm in terms of changing minds. Some people are still old-school about casting. … I do think minds are changing, and we’re living in an exciting time when people are not just willing, but excited, to think outside the box.”

Although presenting an established play in a different way can be a risk, Michaelsen wants the department’s students to learn that they can take risks as they build their own careers.

“It gets students thinking in a creative way, not just presenting it the way it’s always been done,” he said. “It not only gives certain students more opportunities, it also just makes everyone in the cast — and hopefully the audience, too — think that yeah, you can take a risk. You can do something different.”

As women in acting, as well as other professions, continue to fight for their voices to be heard and to be given a seat at the table, Michaelsen hopes IU students on stage and in the audience are already being accustomed to new ways of thinking.

“We’re trying to serve as many students we can and as many diverse backgrounds as we can,” he said. “To say that ‘Hamlet’ was written for a man, so only a man can do it … we’re getting away from that.”

If You Go

WHO: Indiana Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.

WHAT: “Julius Caesar,” written by William Shakespeare, directed by Jenny McKnight.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Jan. 23-27; 2 p.m. Jan. 27.

WHERE: Ruth N. Halls Theatre, 275 N. Jordan Ave.

TICKETS: $5-$20; 812-855-1103,

Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times. Find more arts news from Jenny Porter Tilley at

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IU Theatre presents Shakespeare classic on a dictator’s reign, assassination

Meaghan Deiter (Caesar) during a rehearsal for “Julius Caesar.”

By Joel Pierson | H-T Theater columnist
Jan 14, 2018

William Shakespeare had a real interest in Roman history, as evidenced in his best-known work about this era, “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.”

In fact, much of what we know about the end of the dictator’s reign comes from Shakespeare’s work, down to his famous (and without any basis in historical fact) last words: “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar.” Historians believe his actual final words to be, “Ow, s***, that hurts. Please stop stabbing me.”

I should have inserted a spoiler alert before that slightly irreverent quip, but if you’re interested in “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” and you’re expecting a happy ending for him, you probably weren’t paying close attention in ninth-grade English. Let’s face it: that’s where many of us first encountered the tale of conspiring Roman senators hell-bent on taking down the tyrannical leader on the Ides of March, 44 BC. We were tasked with reading it for homework, with key sections read aloud in class by fellow students who were probably shaky at best on what they were orating. Not the best way to experience such an influential work of literature.

Fortunately, the IU Theater is here to rescue you. Their production of “Julius Caesar,” opening this week, puts those powerful words in the mouths of a talented cast, bringing all the drama to life — and later, you know, death. So, friends, Bloomingtonians, countrymen, I come to praise this “Caesar,” not to bury it. And to find out a bit more about putting this production together, I talked with director Jenny McKnight, including the fact that the actor portraying Julius Caesar happens to be named Meaghan.

“There are a number of non-traditional casting choices in our production,” McKnight told me, “and some of those were made prior to auditions. However, the decision to cast a female in the role of Julius Caesar was made following auditions, for a variety of reasons, including the opportunity for Meaghan to play this iconic role, the ways that gender might influence the relationships in the play, and the strength of her audition. Casting is a bit like playing Tetris — all the pieces must fit together perfectly to create some kind of solid structure!”

I asked her if there was an effort to politicize the production, as has been done in the past, making it a metaphor for a specific government or regime. She replied, “One of the things I like most about our production is that it isn’t specific to any real political climate or situation, which allows the audience to note the parallels between the events of Caesar’s death and the subsequent chaos with a variety of historical figures. I like the idea that in our production, Rome and Caesar is not germane to one time and place, but floats through history. I think this does allow our audiences to be more involved in creating the story along with us.”

The production examines how rhetoric works to influence people and get things done. Mark Antony is the play’s speechmaker, addressing the masses and influencing their opinions. McKnight added, “One of the glories of studying and performing Shakespeare is the opportunity to ‘speak the speech’ as written by arguably the most skilled writer of poetic and dramatic language. Shakespeare’s facility with words requires our student actors to rise to the occasion, and seeing the progress they have made in appreciating and owning that responsibility has been really exciting.”

Contact Joel by sending an email to features@heraldt.comwith “Pierson” in the subject line.

If you go

WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance

WHAT: “Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare

WHERE: Ruth N. Halls Theater, 275 N. Jordan Ave.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19-20 and 23-27; 2 p.m. Jan 27

TICKETS: $10–20. Call 812.855.1103 or visit

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H-T REVIEW: IU actors rise to the occasion in Brecht allegory


Courtney Reid Harris as the MC

By Connie Shakalis | HT Reviewer  Dec 2, 2017

“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!

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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;

Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times. For more arts news and reviews, visit
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Theatre Review: Indiana University Department of Theatre and Drama presents “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui”

By Anne Kneller | Friday, December 1, 2017

MFA Glynnis Kunkel-Ruiz in IU Theatre’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui”

There is one show in Bloomington that you should see in the coming week, and no, it has little to do with cracking nuts or sugar plums a-prancing. The IU Theatre Department’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a timely reminder that authoritarianism, much like Jason Voorhees, never fully dies.

An electric ensemble of women performers (and two very talented men) skillfully navigate the play’s alternations in tone from comedic farce, to social critique to gangster origin story. Which is to say, the play both is and is not about Chicago gangster Arturo Ui’s rise from ridiculed ruffian to homicidal populist demagogue via his scheme to create a market monopoly on cauliflower. And yes, I did say cauliflower.

Arturo Ui is the story of Ui’s rise to power in that it fits very well within the genre of gangster films tv shows, and novels such as White Heat with James Cagney, Little Caesar with Edward G. Robsinson, the Godfather saga and more recently, Boardwalk Empire. Narratives in this genre usually trace the meteoric rise of gangsters from their early childhood in poverty to the apex of their power as neighborhood “bosses” and then to their nadir as “Johnny Law” catches up with them. However, it would be reductive to term Arturo Ui a mere addition to this genre as it was written by noted critic of the Third Reich, Bertolt Brecht, who expressly had the National Socialist Party in mind when he authored it. Brecht’s characters correspond to many of the members of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle and many scholars have noted that the play’s narrative arc mirrors the transition of Germany from Weimar Republic to NAZI controlled Deutschland. The play is also divided into 13 sections which parallel Umberto Eco’s principals of Ur-Fascism. These are projected above the scene taking place with text that provides meta-commentary on the action.

The choice to stage this play was timely, yet its message can easily be oversimplified if viewed purely as a morality tale about the dangers of National Socialism. Well aware of this, director Liam Castellan seeks to push audiences past cursory readings of Brecht’s work, and he does so by pointing to the ways in which contemporary uses of the phrase “NAZI Germany” often serve as a means of deflecting attention from our own inaction in the face of authoritarianism. Much like the timely satire of Armando Iannucci (I haven’t seen “Death of Stalin” yet, so please no spoilers), Brecht’s work is all about the constructed nature of the politician’s image and the ways in which authoritarian leaders view those who propel them to power as expendable resources. Castellan’s take complicates our reading of Brecht’s play, allowing it to critique authoritarianism, corporate greed, business monopolies and dehumanization, all of which are rooted in a system that prioritizes the acquisition of capital over the well-being of people.

I told you, it’s a production that packs a heavy right hook.

Not only is the direction superb, its cast breathes fresh life into what could easily have become a play with a markedly masculinist bent. The choice to cast mostly women actors in the play is a bold one, and one which also allows for considerations of the roles that women have played in supporting and suborning authoritarianism and violence. In this manner, Castellan also undermines the masculinism inherent in the rhetoric which authoritarian, racist and patriarchal institutions use to incite the public to “abandon femininity” for the sake of the fatherland. As critical as it is to have a cast of women actors, I am loathe to tokenize a group of women performers solely for their gender as the performances given by many of these young actors are truly sublime. This is Glynnis Kunkel-Ruiz’s debut and she was absolutely magnetic: as Ui she alternates between a frenetic energy and a stone-cold narcissism with the deftness and attention to detail of a mature performer. She has an extremely difficult role in that she is playing a character who learns how to play a character in the realm of politics, and her accent, her gestures, her expressions are pitch perfect for Ui’s role as petty dictator over a cart of vegetables. After this truly fantastic performance, I look forward to seeing Kunkel-Ruiz more on the Wells-Metz Theatre stage.

Mia Siffin’s performance as the very drunk acting coach was an absolute scene-stealer. The woman served us some genuine holiday ham in her hilarious scene where she “teaches” Ui how to walk (the goose-step), sit and stand in public. Siffin’s scenery-chewing and wild blocking during her Antony monologue is uproariously funny and also perfectly aligned with Brecht’s critiques of the emphasis on the pure emulation of effete acting styles in early twentieth-century theatre. Also notable is Katie Swaney as Clark, who undoubtedly gives one of the best character acting performances I’ve seen this semester. Swaney swaggers across the scenery with the metered braggadocio of James Cagney, and she has the accent and flawless line delivery to boot.

Another standout performance you’ll enjoy is Courtney Reid Harris as the MC and Dockdaisy. Harris is riveting from the first moment she steps on stage as ringleader of the authoritarian circus till the last line of the play. She and Carina Lastimosa Salazar demonstrate a clear skill at creating believable characters. These two performers are powerhouses when it comes to alternating between modes of performance and accents.

Lastly, but certainly not least, the two gentlemen of Ui are riveting to watch onstage in their own right. Nathaniel Kohlmeier’s Giri has crafted a truly intimidating psychopath who is by turns charming and violently enraged, and several notches up on the sociopathic scale from Mac in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And Dom Pagliaro carries himself like a quieter version of an (armed) club bouncer who has a baritone voice sure to charm even the most fickle of ears. Kudos gents.

All of these wonderful performances were made possible by a theatre department which endeavors to take risks, to stage plays that critically interrogate the world we live in and to provide opportunities for young actors, technicians and directorial staff to flex their creative muscle. More than ever, we need strong theatre and arts programs that afford students the ability to grapple with the world they live in and to respond to our social realities. Arturo Ui, like Umberto Eco’s principals of Ur-Fascism demands that we examine the ways in which a society that is supposedly based in the “will of the people” can slip easily into an authoritarian regime maintained through nepotism, destabilization and violence. With such biting lines as “what counts is what the little hick imagines the boss acts like”, Brecht points to the constructedness of the politician’s image, underscoring the performative nature of politics, and the destructive power of internalized classism and political chauvinism.

Go see some theatre y’all. Who knew cauliflower could be the opiate of the masses?

About the author:
Anne Mahady-Kneller is a PhD student at Indiana University. She studies visual representations of race, ethnicity and national identity at the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies. But on her days off, she’s usually either watching Veep with her husband Drew or chasing her Boston terrier Oscar away from her pizza.​

Reprinted with permission from the author.

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