BWW Review: THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI at Scena Theatre
One of the best and worst parts about live theater is that it doesn't necessarily go to plan. Even the best shows are vulnerable to flubbed lines, broken props, technical issues, and the whims of the audience. It's part of the excitement. There's an infamous story about the Broadway run of One Man, Two Guvnors, in which James Cordon's shoe came untied. When he rolled and flailed along the edge of the stage, his shoe flew off and hit an unsuspecting woman in the audience in the face. But, despite her injury (don't worry - she's fine), the show's reputation is still favorable: Cordon, notably, won a Tony for the role. It's understood that things can - and often do - go wrong, and that a show can still thrive when they do.
Unfortunately, this is not the case with The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.
Scena Theatre's latest show is not a great show with a few mishaps - it is simply an uncomfortable series of mishaps. After a promising opening in which the cast introduces the story with Shakespearean language and a clever use of the minimalistic set, the play takes a sharp turn downward and never recovers. From forgotten lines to mismatched costumes to poorly chosen set pieces to terrible accents, Arthuro Ui feels like a show that still needs to work out the kinks - and there are lots of them.
The cast ranges from those making a valiant effort to those who repeatedly forgot their lines and cues. At one incredibly awkward moment, a key line was forgotten and a cast member attempted to prompt. When it did not work, they tried again. After the third and fourth attempts, there was an additional beat of silence before it finally processed and the line was recalled. At various other points, actors spoke over each other, or out of turn, jumbling the dialogue in a way that made it difficult to follow. What's more, the lack of consistent energy or emphasis made the dialogue that was delivered difficult to follow; live theater thrives off audience reaction, but the theater remained mostly silent.
That silence, meanwhile, may be why so many of the mistakes and cringe-worthy decisions stood out. Lines intended as jokes came off flat, so there was no energy to feed the show going forward, and it was easy to lose interest entirely. Without any encouraging energy, the show felt long and rambling, and often uncomfortable. This was exacerbated by the production's decision to use a notably heavy bench that was flipped not once, but twice; the set piece was far too heavy for this use, and the sound was painfully jarring, plus it drowned out even the shouted dialogue it coincided with.
I was also disappointed by a number of directorial and character decisions in the show. The first main scene consisted of a conversation among actors who stiffly stood in a line speaking at the audience instead of each other. Many lines were unnecessarily presented in unison. This may have been intended for an emphasis, but happened so frequently and with such poor timing (it was rare for the actors to actually speak in unison) that the lines themselves were lost in the shuffle of the lifeless production. The exception was the decision to have the cast repeat, in unison, the last line of the show, presumably for shock value; while the line may have been more acceptable to audiences when the show premiered in 1958, it was a startling tone for today, particularly after such a tedious performance.
Incidentally, the only life in this performance came from the titular character, whose odd outbursts and unstable manner make it questionable that he could actually rise to power; he's not particularly bright or charismatic, and his plans are either poorly thought-through or poorly presented (it was hard to tell). Despite the show's insistence that Arturo Ui is a small-scale dictator whose rise parallels that of Hitler (moments in Hitler's ascent that were meant to be reflected by Ui's rise were projected on the set, though some of the set pieces blocked this even from the middle of the theater), he's really more comparable to some modern politicians we've seen who have dictator-like ambitions without the skills to achieve those goals, but also without the devoted followers most of those leaders have. The result is a show that tells us this is a man to be feared who will reach great heights, but shows us a man who can and should easily be imprisoned.
Perhaps it's the lofty, Shakespearean-style introduction, the outsized musical selection ("Flight of the Valkyrie" is used more than once), or the references to one of the most devastating dictatorships in modern history, but The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui sets impossibly high expectations for itself and promptly fails to come even fractionally close to those expectations. But, even putting those comparisons aside, the production falls disappointingly flat.
Scena Theatre's production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui runs at the Atlas Performing Arts Center through July 14th, with performances on Thursdays through Sundays. The show's run time is approximately two and a half hours with one 10-minute intermission. Tickets and additional information can be found on the Scena Theatre website.