In April, Studio 201 was transformed into 1930s Chicago for Bertolt Brecht’s epic satire The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, directed by Stephen M. Eckert, graduating John Wells Directing Fellow.

Trapped in Finland as World War II began, Brecht sought solace from wartime in the grandiosity of gangster films. Brecht saw a parallel between the gangster on screen and the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.

In response, Brecht began to write Arturo Ui, an allegorical tale of an American gangster-turned-dictator. Set in a Chicago populated by mobsters, shady businessmen, and a burgeoning vegetable trade industry, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui centers on the title character’s rise to power.

First seen as a down-and-out, forgotten gangster, the play follows Ui as he uses manipulation, blackmail, and violence to establish his image as an unstoppable force.

“When I proposed this play I was very aware of the rise of authoritarian strongmen not only in the US but globally,” Eckert said. “I wanted to adapt Brecht’s play because of its takedown of the myth that fascists are competent, that they [are] striking or monstrous figures that [are] evil but effective.”

Actors Sam O’Byrne and Megan Forster starred as the entire company, representing the cast of more than ten distinct characters.  

Eckert employed a wide range of techniques to populate the Brechtian world: puppets, masks, shooting range targets, live video and prerecorded media, audience participation, and a bust of Shakespeare.

“We knew that building a vocabulary for the audience would aid in clarity,” Eckert said. “Though characters appear in several different forms…they always have touchstones visually and vocally so [audiences] can follow who is who.”

Second year sound designer Aaron Landgraf was tasked with the challenge of navigating the workings of these characters.

“Sound definitely functions as kinetic force in this play,” Landgraf said. “The actors are already doing so much work…I was happy to try and alleviate some of that pressure from them by doing my best to move things along.”

Landgraf spoke about the task of embodying the full breadth of the play’s company, specifically his role in representing some characters by sound alone.

“It was a choice I was happy to make, sort of out of necessity. It gave me the chance to work more with the actors than a sound designer usually gets to, which I’m always happy about,” Landgraf said.

By the end of Arturo Ui, the show’s eccentricity takes a dark shift. With full power over Chicago, Ui delivers a terrifying speech that ends in murder — and after the show’s end, it is clear that Ui will have that control for the foreseeable future.

“It’s fun. It’s quirky. But it’s also confusing,” Landgraf said, “which is a lot like the tactics of fascism. These things are sort of used as distractions to keep people off balance, to keep them from looking at the real problems.”

When asked why this play needs to be onstage today, Eckert cited authoritarian strongmen like Duterte [and] Putin, as well as the spike in nationalistic political movements throughout Europe and here in the United States with the rise of Donald Trump.

The idea that fascism is efficient is a myth that fascists themselves perpetuated,” Eckert said.

Written by Lauren D’Errico