Review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (The Red Light District)

Chicago mobsters take center stage in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui playing at Toronto’s The Great Hall

When I read the play listing for The Red Light District‘s production of Bertolt Brecht‘s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, the premise of mobsters in 1930s Chicago monopolizing the vegetable industry in the only way the mob knows how — intimidation, brute force, and an increasing body count, I was sold. It’d be like watching The Sopranos on stage I thought, but more Al Capone and tommy guns.

Reaching out to my theatre types in search of my plus one, my friend Grace chimed in, “I love Brecht!” she told me. Considering I didn’t know much about the German dramatist who wrote the play in the span of three weeks during 1941 when he was in exile in Finland, I knew that bringing Grace along would shed some needed light on this production.

It was time for me to get schooled on Berlin-style cabaret and epic theatre.

For those unfamiliar with the style as I was, you get a taste of what’s in store the moment you walk into The Black Box at The Great Hall. Two mobster types carrying newspaper-mâchéd tommy guns give you a pat down search for security’s sake. Beyond the balcony, the stage below is plastered with newspapers, a projection against the back wall counts down minutes until curtain while the cast mingle about in the same highly exaggerated and dramatic style you’d expect from cabaret and silent film. The cast members all wear variations of the same makeup — white face with black features, accented eyes and extreme sideburns.

The story is about a fictional mob boss, Arturo Ui (Daniela Pagliarello) who takes advantage of Chicago’s financial crisis to spread tyranny and fear and thus takes over the cauliflower industry. Though fictional, the characters draw satirical parallels to Adolf Hitler and the main players in the Nazi party with Ui representing Hitler.

Throughout the production, and it is a long one though it doesn’t feel like it, there is constantly a lot of something going on. From music and sound effects, song and dance, overblown movements, extensive use of the entire stage, audience interaction, side commentary projected to the papered backdrop, and don’t forget to pick up a program on the way in, you’ll be asked to refer to it.

It’s racy, raunchy and not for the feint of heart. Keep your eyes open and feel free to visually explore the space while you’re watching the action unfold as the cast is everywhere — in the wings, behind your seat, climbing the support beams and up on the balcony. Remember, someone’s always watching.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is fun, sexy and hilarious, filled with as many unique small aspects that made me smile as there were large and full-blown spectacles. The use of “rabble rabble rabble” or “whisper whisper” by the actors on the side to denote crowd banter. Pagliarello’s multi-talented skills including tap dance where the thunderous crash of her heels on the hardwood stage signified a rain of rapid gunfire. Tyler Hagemann as the aging chair-bound Dogsborough and his constant need of assistance from moving across the stage to moving his own limbs. Mishka Thébaud as Givola and his constant limp with his one foot turned inward to the side throughout the production — that has to be uncomfortable.

Then there’s Alexandra Augustine as Dockdaisy and her audacity in the false start where she brings the opening number to a screeching halt looking for Givola as she needs to, uh … “service him” before the show, her sex kitten song voice, and then her lingerie-clad body used as a writing table. That woman is…something else.

Grace was thoroughly impressed with the production’s use of period and contemporary music to bridge the scenes highlighting the Berlin style of cabaret evident in Brecht’s work and staying true to the essence of epic theatre. The Charlie Chaplin-esque caricature style of performance, where it feels like you’re watching a vintage cartoon, was spot on.

This is a type of theatre that you don’t see quite often these days and it’s well worth experiencing for a completely off-the-wall take on one of history’s darkest figures. Any similarities between Arturo Ui and a certain local politician and his new found associations with gun-carrying gangsters are purely coincidental.

Details

  • The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is playing at The Great Hall Black Box (1087 Queen St. West).
  • Performances run November 28 – 30, and December 4 – 7.
  • Performance times are at 8 pm with matinees on Saturdays (November 30 and December 7) at 2 pm.
  • Tickets are $25 or $20 for students and arts workers.
  • Tickets can be purchased online at theredlightdistrict.ca.

Photo of Daniela Pagliarello (Ui) and Tiana Asperjan (Clark) provided by The Red Light District.