The Khan Theatre presents Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in a compelling production, directed by Udi Ben Moshe, with a new translation to Hebrew by Yotam Gotel. Brecht’s play is a satiric parable of the rise of Adolf Hitler, written in 1941, when Brecht was in Finland, awaiting a visa to enter the United States. The play focuses on Arturo Ui, a Chicago gangster who expands his reach and impact by gaining control over the vegetable market. As written, each character and event in Brecht’s play had its parallel in the Nazi Party’s rise to power in Germany. In the current production the emphasis on these parallels has been eased, giving the play a more contemporary feel and relevance to the current political climate. The entire ensemble delivers a polished and incisive performance, elegantly portraying the characters with comic precision that never blurs the play’s ultimately chilling message.
The play opens with an Announcer (Yehoyachin Friedlander), impeccably dressed in suit and tie, who explains in a calm demeanor that this will be a story about criminals, deception, bribes, and murders. As he introduces the characters, their image appears larger than life on the gigantic video screen behind him. The video art functions as an element of the play throughout, in different ways, comic at times, ominous at others, and effectively bringing the play into 2023, when screens are ubiquitous and fake news an inevitable part of daily life.
Set in Chicago, the vegetable market is in trouble and needs a loan to pull through, but Mayor Dogsborough (Arie Tcherner) refuses. They figure out a way to get the money they need, by exploiting the vulnerability of one of their own – Fish, and Dogsborough’s greed. And that is the opening small time gangster Arturo Ui needs to get a foot in the door. Erez Shafrir is spectacular as the mercurial Arturo, capable of shifting tone in an instant, a consummate actor who will do anything to get ahead. As the play begins, he’s struggling, complaining to his fellow gangster Ernesto Roma (Vitali Friedland) that no one respects him. Friedland invests Roma with a charm tempered by an undercurrent of violence, together with Arturo – it’s a winning team, as they balk at nothing. The path of corruption is a slippery slope, and once a person has begun to slide, it’s hard to stop, much less climb back up to the moral high ground. Arie Tcherner provides a poignant moment as Dogsborough falls apart, realizing how he has compromised himself through his own greed.
As Arturo and his gang gain control over the vegetable union, Arturo wisely seeks to remake his image as a leader. In a very funny scene, he takes instruction from an aging, disabled actor (Yehoyachin Friedlander) on how to stand, walk, and make speeches. In his walk there is a trace of mocking the Nazi goose step, and perhaps Brecht referencing Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), but there is a fine restraint in the physical comedy, and it never slips from the comic to the cartoonish. One can also see Brecht’s admiration for Shakespeare in several references which have been retained in this production. Arturo practices public speaking reading a few lines from Marc Antony’s eulogy of Julius Caesar, and later there is a reference to Macbeth’s vision of Banquo’s ghost. Yet the most powerful image is one that is presented most boldly and effectively, evoking Act I, scene ii from Richard III, and emphasizing the similarities between Arturo and Richard as great manipulators – Shafrir is so utterly and wonderfully slick and immoral. As his influence and control increase, Arturo alters his wardrobe as well, exchanging his blue track suit for a pin-stripe blazer, a subtle yet noted shift towards external respectability. His cronies soon follow his sartorial lead.
As Arturo exploits the greed, moral weakness, and fear of those around him he and his cronies grow ever more powerful, yet with dishonesty and deception as the code of behavior, they must inevitably distrust and fear one another as well, and the violence mounts. Yet the clever and fast-paced dialogue, as well as the physical comedy keeps the tone light, even when depicting harsh events. When Nir Ron appears in court as Hook, recanting his testimony at the witness stand with his glasses askew and his hair a mess, one cannot help but smile, even as one is aware of the bullying and corruption his appearance implies. The rendition of the play in Hebrew, and the choice of particular phrases, such as “there is no governance” (אין משילות – ein meshilut) marks the play with a sense of the current political scene in Israel, and a warning for our own times, albeit a very entertaining one.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
By Bertolt Brecht
Directed and adapted by Udi Ben Moshe
Hebrew translation: Yotam Gotal
Set Design: Svetlana Breger; Costume Design: Elena Kelrich; Music: Boris Malkovsky; Lighting Design: Roni Cohen; Video Art: Daniella Bella Candleshine; Cast (in order of appearance): Yehoyachin Friedlander – Announcer, Fish, Actor, Ignatius Dullfeet; Nir Ron – Clark, Bowl, Hook; Gal Zak – Butcher, Guiseppe Givola; Shalev Gelber – Flake, Emmanuel Giri; Arie Tcherner – Old Dogsborough; Schahar Netz – Young Dogsborough, A defendant; Erez Shafrir – Arturo Ui; Vitali Friedland – Ernesto Roma; Nitsan Levartovsky – O’Casey, an investigator, Betty Dullfeet