When an economic slump provides prime conditions for the rise of a small-time thug (strikingly similar to Al Capone) to take over the vegetable trade in 1930’s Chicago, a parallel is set up for the story of another thug who is rising to power on the world stage in 1941, Adolf Hitler. UI is a viciously funny “parable play,” written but rarely performed in the United States.


The reviews are in.

“The German playwright, writing at the time of Hitler, charts the course of a petty Chicago gangster who ruthlessly exploits a frail and corrupt cauliflower syndicate in order to rise to power. Hitler’s own methodology is there, if you want it, but the assassinations and blackmail that put Ui into power are methods shared by every petty tyrant. Ui could stand for all of them. As played by Frank Theatre cofounder Bernadette Sullivan, she is all of them. She struts and swaggers with a universal cockiness at the play’s beginning–the posture of a young brawler or street tough–but settles into the archetypal, monstrous aloofness of the ruthlessly powerful toward the end, calling to mind Stalin’s and Mussolini’s stolid posturing. Put a bandanna around her forehead and she could even be Kublai Khan with her retinue gathered round. But in this instance, Tommy guns at the ready, the dictator’s understudies have not come to build an oasis for her. When Ui opens her mouth and lies to us at this point, her pretty platitudes are not entertaining. They are terrifying.”

Max Sparber, City Pages

“Given the recent events in New York City and Washington D. C., the thought of taking in a play is the furthest thing from people’s minds. While film and television entertain from a perspective, the personal intensity of theater seems somehow extravagant and trivial. Most plays cannot express the anguish that rocked the United States on September 11th. Nor can they address the fear of an imminent war. Theatre turns into a luxury for less political times, except on the stages of playwrights who feed off politics, such as Bertolt Brecht. Frank Theatre’s production of THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI manages to make theater matter again and address the fear of the nation.

“Arturo Ui, Brecht’s “parable play,” looks at Hitler’s rise to power in Germany using American gangsters to represent Hitler and his. Rarely staged in the United States, the politics of THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI make it an appropriate play in a time where there is little dissension among the two ruling political parties. While Frank Theatre chose not to directly link the play with the recent tragedies, they recognized immediately how Hitler’s rise to power compared to the birth of the WTO in the1990s and the scandals that plagued the U.S. government during the Clinton era.

“The plot begins with gangster Arturo Ui trying to gain leverage on political officials in the midst of a recession. At first, the businessmen reject him, but he eventually worms his way into the grocery business through sabotage and murder. His rise through the coercion of the grocers to pay protection fees for the goods they sell. From one city to the next, he strong-arms or murders all who oppose him, dictating the prices of groceries and where they can be sold. With control of the grocery business, Ui wields power across the city, controlling all city officials.

“Before Ui makes a move on the vegetable business, he knows his image must change. Ui transforms from a low-life gangster into a statesman. Early in the play, he slinks around the stage, with a heavy Bronx accent and a stogie hanging out of his mouth. With the desire for power, he takes lessons on how to walk, talk, sit and speak (something Hitler was rumored to have done). Frank Theatre intensified the dynamic change by slowing adornments to Ui’s pinstriped suit, making him resemble Hitler — the belt and his trademark stilted walk. The transformation occurs without a glitch. Bernadette Sullivan nails performance by delivering her lines perfectly and adding simple details like a firm two-fingered point and a penetrating stare when Ui wants something done. Her performance breathes life into a play filled with political rhetoric.

“The entire cast works to keep the production from sinking into that rhetoric. There is very little stationary dialogue, and each character has his own unique and intriguing idiosyncracies. Some are defined by their walk or their voice, while others, like the Butcher, have a few more concrete details conveyed ? the Butcher’s evangelical fervor and emphatic but meaningless gestures make him resemble a politician. The supporting roles make a statement because the actors make their presence recognizable and unique while on the stage.

“Director Wendy Knox keeps the spirit of Brecht in the play. The characters set up the stage as the audience trickles into the space, a Brechtian idea to deter the audience from confusing theater with reality. With no curtain in place, the audience also witnesses the actors waiting for the play to begin, just as the audience itself waits. The actors also take turns holding a spotlight in the different scenes, squatting on the floor, in full view. Knox keeps the oft-hidden elements of theater in full view of the audience to follow Brecht’s ideas on theater.

“Another Brechtian detail is the space. Brecht championed the idea of alienating the audience, and Frank Theater uses a unique performance space to keep the audience from linking Arturo Ui with other plays they have seen in the past. The is performed in an old munitions factory on the Metropolitan State University campus, a vast space previously used by artists, soon to be destroyed. With the building’s history in mind, Frank Theatre makes great use of the space. From using the fire doors to represent the impenetrable entrance to Ui’s gang’s hideout to having characters enter through a manhole in the floor, Knox has directed the show so that characters interact constantly with their space.

“After each scene, Brecht’s rotating narrators explain the parallel between the particular chapter of Ui’s story and Hitler’s rise to the title Chancellor of Germany. After each of these statements, Frank Theatre adds a statement about the Clinton era and the WTO, confirming the play’s contemporary value. A quote from the WTO’s mission statement about raising the standard of living and helping the environment is read following a scene where Ui coerces the respected politician into giving him carte blanche to improve the plight of business in Chicago.

“Most haunting about THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI are the monologues of Ui himself. The determined, convincing call for protection against violence, the demand for more power in order to protect and the desire to make his name, all ring familiar in the wake of the September 11th attacks. While Ui’s cadences are more rhythmic and lulling, the words are similar to those that have been broadcast by many politicians in the past few weeks. While George W. Bush may not be cementing his role as a dictator, his call for war and power and the politicians’ refusal to acknowledge the potential loss of innocent lives certainly ring a bell.

“The politics in Brecht’s THE RESISTABLE RISE OF ARTURO UI may seem too obvious in a time where Hitler is widely recognized as a vicious dictator, but Frank Theatre points out that a similar poison has entered the realm of global politics, and it too has quietly taken power. In a moment when the policies of the U.S. government can have such a profound effect on the world, Brecht’s political views could not be more appropriate.”

Katy Hanggi, Object Magazine

At the end of “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” the title actor steps out of character to tell the audience that although “this bastard is gone, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.” Perhaps dramatic flair inspired Bertolt Brecht to add this postscript to his Chicago gangland allegory about the rise of Adolf Hitler, but the words strike with no small amount of resonance in a world haunted anew 60 years later by shadowy fanatics.

Frank Theatre has brought this Brecht work back to the local stage for the first time since an acclaimed Guthrie production in 1968. Director Wendy Knox weaves “Guys and Dolls” moxie with the stylized vaudeville of “Cabaret” to express Brecht’s superrealism, but this prevailing sense unfortunately stalls out, a victim of the playwright’s occasionally static script and the inability of Bernadette Sullivan to elevate Ui into the rarefied atmosphere shared by megalomaniac avatars. In Knox’s cartoon world, Sullivan’s Ui sticks out as the sane one.

The plot is simple. Ui pimps his way into control of the slumping cauliflower market of 1930s Chicago, in particular by cajoling and seducing old Dogsborough, a confused merchant who represents the German president whom Hitler obsequiously manipulated. Ui eliminates competition, cows the unions and eventually extends his hegemony over the suburb of Cicero just as the F?hrer annexed Austria in 1938.

Brecht, while transparently demonstrating his politics, is more about theatrical possibilities than strict philosophy in this play. The script is a daunting mess of blank verse, a little homage to Shakespeare, some clever rhyme and straight dialogue.

Knox brings the audience in on Brecht’s intent with a ghostly, white-faced pall that from the top signals the unreality of it all. The cast is quite good, with Maria Asp as one of Ui’s henchmen and Tom Sherohman as Dogsborough pushing the envelope with caricatured portrayals. All that, however, is firewood awaiting the kindling spark, and Sullivan does not provide it. Her Ui stays within the boundaries of suave menace, never betraying an unpredictability or a sudden pop of savage caprice, or descending into a cooing huckster. We seldom see the wheels of transformation working in Ui’s mind, charting his course from small-time thug to supreme boss.

Now, getting back to that point about resonance. Brecht dotted his script with explanations of how certain events related to what was happening in Germany at the time. Knox’s actors take this clumsy device a step further, trying to make parallels to events of the past decade — such as protests against the World Trade Organization, the North American Free Trade Agreement or last fall’s electoral contretemps. Please, let Brecht’s work speak for itself and spare us the tortured politics.

Graydon Royce, Minneapolis Star Tribune