Would You, Could You Stop a Demagogue? 'The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui' Asks the Question

Mob boss Arturo (Anthony Silk, left) has words with Betty Dullfeet (Margaret Allen, right), the widow of one of his victims in "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," presented Nov. 8 – 24 at Foothill Theatre Arts, Los Altos Hills. (Courtesy of Alex Minami)

In an age when comics struggle to top what’s happening in Washington, D.C., it’s worth recalling one German playwright who nailed political satire in the age of Adolf Hitler.

Bertolt Brecht's 1941 play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, is a dark but funny parable about the rise of fascism in 20th century Europe.

"Two hours and a half in which you’ll see extortion, murder, arson, larceny, bribery, blackmail, yellow journalism, and other by-products of capitalism," say announcers Chayenne Greenberg and Parker Hough at the beginning of a Foothill Theatre Arts production up now in Los Altos Hills.

American playwright Bruce Norris adapted Brecht’s play two years ago, to take full advantage of the current political climate.

"We need to bring back law and order, folks. We need the right defensive measures. I’ll tell you what we need. We need a wall, a human shield to keep the bad ones out, and I’m the only one who can provide it," says the title character, Arturo Ui, played with understated but effective malice by high school math teacher Anthony Silk.

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Ui is a small time mobster in 1930s Chicago running a protection racket in the local cauliflower business: his thugs ask grocers and wholesalers for money to protect them from the violence the thugs deliver if the hapless business folk don’t pay.

Mob boss Arturo (Anthony Silk, left) gets word from his first lieutenant Roma (Asher Krohn, right) in "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," presented Nov. 8 – 24 at Foothill Theatre Arts, Los Altos Hills.
Mob boss Arturo (Anthony Silk, left) gets word from his first lieutenant Roma (Asher Krohn, right) in "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," presented Nov. 8 – 24 at Foothill Theatre Arts, Los Altos Hills. (Courtesy of Alex Minami)

Clad in a pin-striped suit and fedora, Ui masters the art of corrupting politicians and judges, while pandering to racists and reporters. "Playing this character who is somewhat the embodiment of both Trump and Hitler has been challenging, and there have been certainly days when I want to go home and take a shower," Silk says.

At one point, Ui gets tutoring from a washed-up Shakespearean actor who teaches Ui the locution and physicality of epic villains like Richard III and Macbeth.

"At bloodshed, you experience arousal, and cruelty fills you with inspiration, while kindness only fills you with disgust. You are the very textbook definition of a sociopath!" says grieving widow Betty Dullfeet, played by Margaret Allen. Dullfeet, though, ends up capitulating, too, just like everyone else who doesn’t want to die.

Director Bruce McLeod  says he wants the audience to think about complicity. Remember, the play’s called the “resistible” rise of Arturo Ui. "Most of [Brecht's] plays deal in some way with how we deal with people in power. By not doing something, you are essentially acquiescing to people who will take advantage of the situation," McLeod says.

Or as Ui says in the play, "History’s violent and indecent. But as political scientists observe, we only get the leaders we deserve."

Gangsters Flake (Jessica Lopang, left) and Butcher (Brittany Williams, right) offer a bribe to Dogsborough (George Mauro, center) in "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," presented Nov. 8 – 24 at Foothill Theatre Arts, Los Altos Hills.
Gangsters Flake (Jessica Lopang, left) and Butcher (Brittany Williams, right) offer a bribe to Dogsborough (George Mauro, center) in "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," presented Nov. 8 – 24 at Foothill Theatre Arts, Los Altos Hills. (Courtesy of Alex Minami)

Sure, it’s easy to complain about Hitler and other demagogues. But, Brecht is asking, what are you going to do about it?

Foothill Theatre Arts delivers The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui through November 24, 2019 at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills. For more information, click here.

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