Confetti’s Urgent “Arturo Ui” Aims High and Hits More Often Than it Misses
ALBANY – Confetti Stage has a long history of producing the greatest playwrights of the 20th Century avant-garde from Beckett to Pinter to Ionesco and now the granddady of them all, Bertolt Brecht. Many of the most innovative and challenging plays Confetti has produced for the past decade have been staged by Linda Shirey who I consider one of the greatest Capital Region directors.
A measure of her greatness is her ambition to take on challenging works with limited resources and marshal a huge team of theater makers to realize her goal. Wow! Has she done that with Arturo Ui! She has aimed to produce Brecht’s epic theater on a shoestring at a most urgent time and has pulled out all the stops building a team to accomplish her goal. It is almost impossible to count the number of collaborators in the program. Well done Linda & Confetti!
“Arturo Ui” was written in 1941 in Finland after Brecht had fled his home in Germany escaping from the Nazi regime. Brecht wrote a satire about Hitler and the Nazis but set it in America (where he was hoping to emigrate) and made the titular dictator a Chicago gangster who will battle with his rivals, the Cauliflower Trust, for control and dominance of Chicago groceries.
From the moment you enter the grand Albany Masonic Lodge, which proves a perfect backdrop and setting, you are greeted by Sean Baldwin, Confetti’s President, wearing a banjo with the box office attendants suited up and wearing fedoras. A ride up the ancient, volunteer operated elevator lands you on the fourth floor where the show has already begun. Arrive half an hour before curtain to hear torch and protest songs from the period, especially notable were “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” beautifully sung by Marissa Reimer Hangac and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” with Vivian Wilson-Hwang giving the plea a steely resolve. Colleen Lovett supplies the jokes, “Why does a skeleton remain so calm? Nothing gets under their skin.” The point is made; great need presents the opportunity for horrific circumstances.
It’s hard to do a community theater production of an epic play about the rise of evil because men, who commit 99% of the atrocities in the world, are in scarce supply in the theater, whether you’re casting in summer camp or on Broadway. Too busy committing atrocities, I guess. Not a problem here. The women play the bloodthirsty monsters brilliantly…and make the issue irrelevant. Turns out, men will be replaced.
First and foremost is the electric actor Rachel Jenack who plays Arturo Ui with a languid, relaxed ease like a snake toying with a mouse before striking and swallowing it whole. She sits with one leg kicked out, taking up space. She has a nasality to her Brooklyn dialect she is so comfortable in that is mesmerizing, her explosions when they come are truly arresting. For most of the play, her eyes are shrouded by her newsboy cap or fedora but when her hat is removed and we see the full face of the despot, it is like a special effect, an illumination.
Almost equal to her and far more surprising is Elizabeth Helmer as her henchman Manuele Giri. She is exceptionally strong and grows through the course of the play from her intense teeth picking on the stand as an accused arsonist to the point where her storming, joyful entrances and exits in the second act are horrifying.
Most everyone in the very large cast has a standout moment but also especially good all evening long are Confetti veterans Vincent James, Stephen Henel, Colleen Lovett and Maghen Ryan-Adair. Kat Fronheiser delivers a wonderfully physical performance that is quite liberating. A hearty welcome to Brian Starnes who is making his stage debut and doing an excellent job.
What Linda does so well is treat the evening as theater…from the moment you step in the building, you are completely aware that someone has spent time thinking and considering how she can make an impact on you. The space is transformed with a small stage built out of platforms on the floor with the Lodge providing the rest of the setting and backdrop. Linda always considers her placement of bodies in the room and how they relate to each other and the audience in the room she has created. She has staged many fun configurations here from line-ups to court scenes to a vaudeville act with Starnes and Ryan-Adair. There was too much action in the audience late in the play when I was too tired to shift constantly to follow it.
The play is long, well over three hours which is at least 45 minutes too much. Most of the fault can be placed with Brecht but the production didn’t do the audience any favors with the leisurely scene changes. The changes and pace at times could use more of the urgency that went into programming the play.
The cast has death mask make-up on which I personally didn’t care for, the gangster persona and patois are enough for Brecht’s alienation effect through performance…but it gives you something to look at. I did like the Trump red neckties, though.
Brian Starnes also did the sound design and Stephen Henel has crafted an especially witty and trenchant pre-show announcement. Listen carefully to the Land Acknowledgement statement.
It is a surreal feeling to be attending community theater behind City Hall in the State’s Capital written 80 years ago by a refugee of the Nazi regime while a dinner guest of the former president displays swastikas on Twitter that day. Would Brecht even be allowed into the country today?
Linda Shirey has created an epic night of theater that will thrill, enrage and scare you. What is scariest of all happens outside the theater where the fascism that Brecht was warning about, that we fought a World War to defeat is still on the rise with election deniers, voter suppression and other MAGA stupidity. I am grateful to the 30 patriotic souls who are devoting four hours a night on Corning Place to tell this story. They deserve your attendance and applause.
“The world was almost won by such an ape! The nations put him where his kind belong. But don’t rejoice too soon at your escape – The womb he crawled from is still going strong”Bertolt Brecht
“The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” runs 12/2-12/4 and 12/8-12/11, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 pm at The Albany Masonic Hall, 67 Corning Place, Albany, NY 12207. Pre-show musical performances begin 30 minutes before showtime.
Tickets are available at the door or online at https://confettistage.org/buy-tickets/ . Tickets are $15 for general admission, $10 for students with student ID, and $8 per ticket for groups of 8 or more.