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Al Pacino as Arturo Ui
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
When a production is star-studded, as the National Actors Theatre presentation of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is, there's the possibility it will also be star-stunted in the sense that the focus will be on performers rather than on what's being performed. But while the cast members of this look at Bertolt Brecht's sprawling satire include Al Pacino, Steve Buscemi, Dominic Chianese, Billy Crudup, Charles Durning, Linda Emond, Paul Giamatti, John Goodman, Novella Nelson, Chazz Palminteri, and Tony Randall (who founded the company), the play remains the thing. The players, many of them perhaps passing up movie money to tread Manhattan boards, stand in the spotlight but never steal it from Brecht and what he insists on saying about the means by which corrupt leaders take control.

The primary reason for that commendable situation is that the true star of this Arturo Ui is a man who calls attention to himself only by maximizing the script's potential to astonish and affright: director Simon McBurney. As most serious-theater fans know, McBurney runs his own troupe, Complicité. That name signifies the complicity between actors and audience which, McBurney believes, is the pact made in any worthwhile theater enterprise. Brecht also trumpets complicity in this play: Writing in 1941, long after fleeing Germany, he needed to declare that political realities are determined by the complicity between aspiring leaders and those governed. He was, of course, chronicling Hitler's ascent and wasn't shy about including in his long, sometimes halting dramatic tract barely veiled references to Herman Goering, Joseph Goebbels, Ernst Rohm, and Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dolfuss. Brecht believed their power was not inevitable -- that, to a worrying extent, it had been handed to them.

McBurney, of course, understands this; but it seems that he and Pacino -- the muscle behind the revival -- have more than complicity between Hitler and the German population in mind. That's what makes this production into political theater of the sort Brecht championed. Using Brecht's observations on the marauding governments as well as his concern for future marauders, McBurney has mounted a version of Arturo Ui that ventures beyond equating Ui with Hitler to equate him with more immediate figures. And since Brecht concludes his ferocious play with the remark "Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again," he would probably have approved any sort of pertinent -- as well as impertinent -- updating.

John Goodman, Al Pacino, and
Paul Giamatti (lying on the ground)
in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
There has been plenty in the press lately about the Hitlerian aspects of certain contemporary leaders, and McBurney hereby joins the name callers. There are hard-to-miss suggestions that both George Bush and Saddam Hussein are being compared to Hitler in this production. "Hitler uses fear of terrorism to crush the opposition," reads the text in one of the many projections (they're Ruppert Bohle's work) employed during the action to indicate time, place, and event. And though the word "terrorism" has been in the language since 1798 and the French Revolution, there can be no doubt that McBurney and Pacino are relying on the word's current ubiquity to put observers in mind of today's possibly eager warriors. After all, while the French Revolution-tinged phrase "reign of terror" appears in the George Tabori adaptation used for this production, there is no mention of slides at all, let alone one that begins "Hitler uses fear of terrorism..." The phrase elicits a knowing murmur throughout the auditorium. So, if this isn't necessarily a reading of the Brecht piece that would appeal to Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Ashcroft, it is one wherein, when Ui's henchman gather round him, the $115-ticket buyers might begin to think they're meant to be looking at Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Ashcroft.

The kind of parallels that McBurney draws here might be viewed by some as ham-handed; then again, Brecht himself wasn't a man who believed that the theater was a place for subtlety. He had no time for it. His urgent mission in what has come to be known as "Brechtian" presentation was not to foster realism on stage but to deal unflinchingly with the harshest realities through the depiction of unpolished, detached behavior. So, in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, he sets out the steps by which small-time crook Ui (Pacino), a "simple son of the Bronx," comes to '30s Chicago, takes over the town and, before too long, annexes nearby Cicero. The initial enablers are the Cauliflower Trust's board of directors (Dominic Chianese and Billy Crudup among them), who are upset about downturns they face in a threatened economy. At first, they position party boss Dogsborough (Charles Durning) as their nominal head, with Ui behind him. But Ui, seizing opportunity where he detects weakness, usurps command, helped by ruthless sidekicks Ernesto Roma (Chazz Palminteri), Emanuele Giri (John Goodman), and Giuseppe "The Florist" Givola (Steve Buscemi). The men ride roughshod over civic justice until they begin bumping each other off.

Along the chaotic way, Brecht uses 18 scenes, a prologue, and an epilogue to illustrate what he sees as Ui's resistible rise. Sometimes, the vignettes are brief, as when the ailing Dogsborough writes a will that goes astray. Sometimes they're anything but brief, as in a courtroom scene where communism is made a scapegoat in the person of an innocent man accused of setting a warehouse fire. Several scenes are unexpected, as when Ui, having advanced to a visible slot, decides he'll improve his public persona and consults a down-at-heel Shakespeare thespian (Tony Randall). This last is the play's funniest turn and yet, as Ui perfects his goose step, it remains ominous. (Incidentally, the reference to Shakespeare is calculated. Not only is Arturo Ui written in iambic pentameter, but Brecht liberally pulls quotes intact -- and not so intact -- from the Bard as a way of noting how the locus of 20th-century tragedy has shrunk.) Throughout, McBurney has the ensemble scurrying around like ants in a besieged colony. Abetted by lighting designer Paul Anderson, sound designer Christopher Shutt, and costume designer Robert Innes Hopkins with the help of Christina Cunningham, the director arranges things so that they are constantly involving and the images consistently stun.

Steve Buscemi, Michael Goldfinger, Matte Osian,
Tony Randall, and Al Pacino in Arturo Ui
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Since this play was introduced (not until 1958, by the way), an objection to it has been that the Ui character is a troublesome underestimation of Hitler, but that point is not germane. Brecht was saying that, taking Hitler's brilliant machinations into account, he nevertheless was a little man with a corrupt heart and mind. And that's how Pacino, face whitened and slouching, plays him. Speaking with a guttural Bronx accent, the actor makes Ui someone who's crawled out from under a rock. Even after changing from a gangsterish leather jacket to a brown suit, and sporting a tiny mustache, he remains snivelingly petty. Supporting him, the big-name actors collected here seem fully at home on stage. Buscemi, as the club-footed florist, is especially strong, as are Goodman and Palminteri. Crudup, in two contrasting roles, adds more credits to his list of knockouts. Emond, Chianese, and others who don't necessarily get top Hollywood dollar all register. Only Durning is less than authoritative because he has difficulty projecting. Special praise goes to NAT head Tony Randall, who has often miscast himself; here, playing the acting coach in stingy gray wig and tight black outfit, he is vigorous and hilarious.

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