Should the theater be appropriated to promote the interests of politics, religion, advertising or anything whatever, except art? One of the functions of the critic is to raise that question.
Patrons arriving at the Studio Theater are confronted with huge placards exhibiting blown-up newspaper and magazine articles entitled "The Roots of Skinhead Violence," "The American Neo-Nazi Movement Today" and "Peril from an Imperial President." The last, a denunciation of President Bush's current Middle East policy.
A press release informs us that visiting director Frank Condon "has become known as a master of blending exciting entertainment with politically controversial and challenging content."
Inside is the worst dialectical theater piece Bertolt Brecht ever wrote, "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui." Brecht himself had so little regard for this play that it was never produced in his lifetime, never underwent final revision--much less the 20 to 30 revisions per play he was known for.
In the hands of a second-rate director, all of the above would be a recipe for disaster.
But, in fact, Condon is an artist of a director. He has managed to squeeze copious amounts of artistic blood out of this polemical turnip.
Sharp, clean, astringent, visually and aurally striking, with every theatrical element dynamically fused, this is a textbook example, a paradigm, a veritable monument to the art of Brechtian theater. An educational video should be made, students from other schools should be bused in. One would have to go to Theatre am Schiffsbauerdamm in Berlin to see Brecht this pristine.
All the famous Brechtian devices are lined up like an arsenal: naked lighting, documentary film, placards, a narrator, alienation, musuk (background music that does not engage the emotions), continuous brutality, graphic violence, caricature, allusive names, agitprop crudeness and the brusque, brain-staggering illogic of propaganda plays.
Set in Chicago (Germany) in the 1930s, a two-bit gangster Arturo Ui (Hitler) and his gang (Nazis) wrest control of the Cauliflower Trust (wealthy landowners and industrialists) from Dogsborou (Reich Pesident von Hindenburg), burn down the warehouse (the Reichstag fire), kill Dullfet (Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss) and take over the act in neighboring Cicero (Austria).
Ui, well played by Jason Cottle, is Chaplinesque. But lest we miss the point, we are squarely hit over the head with several baseball bats in the form of documentary footage of Hitler projected on a hanging video screen and ongoing commentary by the narrator delivered in an odd style that can only be described as manic smugness.
High production standards are provided by Michael Devine, scenery; Dunya Ramicova, costumes; Tim Becker, lighting; Carol Whaley, makeup and hair design; Michael Mortilla, music, and Ralf Remshardt, acting as dramaturge.
While slick packaging can momentarily sway judgment, ultimately the salient truth here is that Brecht has survived when myriad agitprop playwrights have fallen into obscurity. The reason is that Brecht at his worst still has enough vestiges of artistic genius to cast a powerful spell.
WHERE AND WHEN
SOLD OUT "THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI," by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Ralph Mannheim, directed by Frank Condon. At the UC Santa Barbara Studio Theater, Santa Barbara, through Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. Ticket prices $7, general, $6, students and seniors. Telephone (805) 893-3535.