By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2006
"Ui" is the memorable surname of the title character in Bertolt Brecht's Fascism allegory "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui." But after an evening with Catalyst Theater's enterprising revival of the play, the name you'll want to commit to memory is McKenzie.
As in Scot McKenzie, an actor of such presence and power that the little black-box theater in the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop feels too puny to contain him. His portrayal of Ui (pronounced "Ooh-wee") -- the oily brute who plots and shoots his way to preeminence in the Chicago fresh-produce business -- is about as big and complete a performance as you would desire in this scathing satire, which equates Nazism with gangland viciousness.
Brecht wrote the broad, cautionary tale at the height of World War II -- a time, perhaps, without patience for subtler treatments of the state of the world. The play is an editorial-cartoon version of Hitler's ascendancy, with an American-style Führer in ties and double-breasted suits who is systematically seducing the public and eliminating his political rivals, in service of a plan for total domination.
The play's alarmist tone is perfectly appropriate. Where Hitler was concerned, of course, you could not have shouted loud enough.
Brecht's point, though, is so thoroughly driven home that to a contemporary audience, it becomes labored. We get the drift pretty quickly -- and even if we didn't, period newsreels are supplied, flashing on a wall events from Hitler's rise closely mirroring those in the play.
What lifts the piece is its nervy, comic energy, the notion that in trivializing Hitler, what's set in amusing relief are his primitive lusts and criminal urges. Which means an actor playing Ui must be intensely watchable: loathsome in an enjoyable sort of way.
Lucky for us, what works best about "Ui" is Ui. Under director Christopher Gallu's spirited guidance, McKenzie progresses from self-pitying thug to polished, pitiless monster. With his expressive eyes and hands, the actor slowly assumes more and more of the real tyrant's mannerisms until, in the speech capping his takeover of the grocery business, we get an impressively close approximation of the trembling, wild-eyed orator of the newsreels.
Fortunately, too, Gallu and company have trimmed the play to manageable length and reduced the cast to a taut ensemble of eight, who divvy up a multitude of garish, craven, corrupt and simpering characters. (Occasionally, actors disappear to take up their other jobs as the production's drummers, trumpet players and pianists.) John Tweel and Andrew Price, who play Ui's shifty right-hand men, are particularly adept at sustaining the work's atmosphere of hooligan-inspired menace.
Scaling down this piece of epic theater could not have been easy. Gallu frames the evening as a B-movie, with rolling opening credits and an old-fashioned projection announcing intermission. At times, however, some of Gallu's ideas are wittier in concept than execution, as when Price is called on to create both ends of a conversation. To give the appearance that he's both men, Price has been outfitted with a mustache that's dark on one side of his face and silver on the other. The problem is that he doesn't always make precise turns from one profile to the other, so the effect is not quite as funny as it could be.
Still, the production maintains a lustrous veneer, thanks to Giorgos Tsappas's flexible, modular set and a wardrobe by Kathleen Geldard that evokes the slick formality of the '30s. (And when one of Ui's murdered allies appears to him in a dream, the effect that lighting designer Jason Cowperthwaite helps to create shows off yet another facet of the company's technical resourcefulness.)
Although some versions of "Ui" stress a darkness of mood, Gallu goes for the play's satirical edge, a thrust for which his cadre of eager young actors seems to have a strong affinity. They pleasingly play off the absurdity of a story in which a would-be despot is so single-mindedly set on dominating a city's supplies of cauliflower and carrots.
McKenzie compels you to believe that mastery over vegetables satisfies a man's most passionate appetites. In the process, he manages to make even the less nutritious parts of "Ui" feel like a full-course meal.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, by Bertolt Brecht. Directed by Christopher Gallu. Composer, Chris Royal; projections, Mark Anduss; props, Jennifer Yu. With Jason McCool, Elizabeth Richards, Scott McCormick, Grady Weatherford, Monalisa Arias. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Nov. 4 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit http://www.boxofficetickets.com .