Scent of a gangster

Al Pacino leads a star-filled cast in 'The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The National Actors Theater revival of Bertolt Brecht's 1941 kaleidoscopic allegorical drama, "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," is a triumph of inspired stagecraft and acting.

Starring Al Pacino, "Arturo Ui" is the thinly veiled story of the irresistible rise of 1930s Nazism in Germany as seen through 1920s gangsterism in Chicago. Under Simon McBurney's direction, Mr. Brecht's haunting and sometimes sardonic lines, as interpreted by a star-studded cast of 32 actors playing more than 50 roles, reinforce one another in a kind of theatrical symphony rarely seen on the New York stage these days.

The opening scene – introducing a motley group of gangsters – sets the pattern for the ensemble's acting, and the virtually seamless scene changes as Arturo Ui and his cohorts become increasingly menacing and powerful. Their unfolding grip on Chicago crime is set against black-and-white film projections of events in Nazi Germany, adding immeasurably to the play's poignance and pathos.

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Ruppert Bohle's projections of old film clips, Paul Anderson's dramatic lighting, and Christopher Shutt's sound effects all help to take the audience on a roller-coaster ride of suspense and emotion.

A scene reconstructing the St. Valentine's Day massacre, for example, with its explosion of machine gunfire, is presented against the backdrop of Hitler consolidating his power. The Chicago-Berlin parallel, which could have become strained, is interwoven beautifully.

Of course, playwright Brecht, who wrote "The Threepenny Opera" and "Mother Courage," often seasons the darkest of his plays with humor, and "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" is no exception.

When Pacino, as the youthful Ui, woos local merchants to his lair with the words, "Something's rotten in the state of Illinois," a variation of a famous line from Shakespeare's "Hamlet," he gets a lot of laughs. But when he becomes the absolute ruler of the Chicago mob, the once awkward and even clownish Ui assumes such a fiendish "Richard III" evil majesty that you could hear a proverbial pin drop.

The National Actors Theater, which was founded by actor Tony Randall, has had a checkered production past, with some complaints that Randall tended to showcase himself prominently in some of the nonprofit theater's shows. But like almost everyone else in "Arturo Ui," Randall is perfectly cast as an old Shakespearean ham actor who teaches Arturo Ui elocution. The entire cast, including John Goodman, Chazz Palminteri, and Charles Durning is excellent.

Despite the fact that everyone, including Pacino, is working for what is called "scale, or the minimum pay required by the Actors Equity union, ticket prices for the show are $100, the highest price in off-Broadway history. But there were few complaints about the price of the seats at the preview performance this reviewer attended.

• 'The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui' is being presented at the 750-seat Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University through Nov. 3.

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