Lantern Theater Company commences its 26th season in Philadelphia with a rare revival of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. On opening night, artistic director Charles McMahon said in a pre-curtain speech that Bertolt Brecht’s totalitarian allegory was one of the primary reasons he wanted to start a theater company. He just needed to wait for the right moment to stage it.
Productions of this particular play—which Brecht began writing while exiled from Germany in 1941, but which went unproduced until the late 1950s—tend to crop up in moments of political turmoil. The original Broadway assumption appeared at the height of the Cold War, and more recently, a starry staging featuring Al Pacino debuted on the eve of the Iraq War. I shouldn’t need to explain why this parable about an insidious gangster’s domination of the green-goods trade in Chicago is catnip to directors who want to make an ideological statement.
I shouldn’t have to, but I will—because despite an elegant physical production (sets by Nick Embree, costumes by Natalia de la Torre, lighting by Drew Billiau) and a handful of sharp performances, Lantern’s take, which McMahon directed, seems curiously stripped of its authoritarian subtext. Brecht pointedly wrote situations and character traits that tie the fast-rising, increasingly charismatic Ui to Adolf Hitler, and while a contemporary director may not want to put too fine a point on that association for fear of didacticism, some awareness needs to puncture the surface action to make the inevitable conclusions appropriately devastating.
Missing the track
Instead, for two of the play’s nearly three-hour running time, the proceedings more closely resemble an amalgamation of early Hollywood gangster flicks and a minimalist production of Guys and Dolls, sans the music. The script, which is presented here in a familiar translation by Ralph Manheim, contains a fair amount of humor, but that element is overstated by a supporting cast that too often seem like they stepped out of a Monty Python sketch.
A particular low point involves a famous scene in which Ui—who is essentially a street rat from the Bronx with delusions of grandeur—strong-arms an alcoholic Shakespearean actor into giving him a crash-course in elocution and posture. The effect of the encounter, as written by Brecht, is to show how easily a magnetic despot can construct an image that will captivate the public and keep them from asking questions. Yet Jered McLenigan, as the actor, plays the moment to the campy hilt, more closely resembling Jerry Lewis than Jeremy Irons, and the result is parodic rather than chilling. The interpretation doesn’t track with Ui’s rise, which is built in public entirely on a growing cult of personality.
Less than uncomfortable
The talented Anthony Lawton should be just right for Ui, and strikes a chord of genuine menace in his quieter moments. A scene in which he violently insinuates himself into the confidence of a competitor’s widow (played nicely by Mary Lee Bednarek, who elsewhere leans too heavily into gangster’s moll stereotypes) genuinely unsettles. Yet when Lawton reaches his most bombastic levels, he more closely resembles an Edward G. Robinson-type tough than a Hitler analog, and his overall performance feels strangely unthreatening.
Brian Anthony Wilson (as Ui’s double-crossing henchman), Frank X (as a beleaguered patsy), and Charlie DelMarcelle (as a smiling enforcer) turn in reliably solid work, though none are as good as I usually expect them to be. The generally reliable Gregory Isaac and David Pica, as representatives of the Cauliflower Trust, are both oddly one-note. The most arresting and memorable aspect of the evening comes in the form of Christopher Colucci’s period-specific sound design, much of which is administered live on vinyl.
The second act achieves a more appropriate tone than the first, as Brecht’s writing grows unapologetically fierce, and McMahon leaves the audience with a final image free of ambiguity. Yet without a proper sense of escalating tension, the it-can’t-happen-here parable doesn’t adequately discomfit. Arturo Ui’s rise may indeed be resistible, but Lantern’s production fails to show us exactly why.
What, When, Where
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. By Bertolt Brecht, directed by Charles McMahon. Lantern Theater Company. Through October 15, 2019, at St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia. (215) 829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.
St. Stephen’s Theater is located on the second floor of the building, which is accessible only by stairs.