When I first spoke to Red Light District Artistic Director Ted Witzel in preparation for his 2010 production of Woyzeck, three things stood out to me. The first was his obvious intelligence and sense of artistic adventure- he’s a jumble of 8-syllable words and avant-garde German theatrical philosophy. The second was a heightened social conscience- he’s a director who needs to say something important and attempt to affect change in some way (whether societally or emotionally) with every production. The third was a surprisingly casual manner (the word “dude” shares airspace with “heteronormativity” quite effortlessly)- a key accessibility that pulls the two aforementioned qualities back from the edge of pretension and allows for his work to be enjoyed by people who don’t give a flying arse about avant-garde German theatrical philosophy *raises hand, points at self*. The result of all this is productions like that memorable Woyzeck (which Witzel translated from Buchner’s incomplete German himself, because of course) and the site-specific SummerWorks piece The Witch of Edmonton, in my opinion the best work the RLD’s ever done (full disclosure: I didn’t see their extremely popular production of The Misanthrope; so, grain of salt). They’re entertaining, intellectually stimulating, a little bit baffling, and always more than a little bit German (even when they’re not German). Also, whiteface; a lot of whiteface. Then Ted Witzel disappeared from the Toronto indie theatre scene for a couple years to get his MFA and work outside his comfort zone by directing commercial productions for CanStage. The RLD produced a show here and there while Witzel was otherwise occupied but it wasn’t until Ui rose resistibly two weeks ago that The Red Light District roared back onto the scene fully itself again.
Directed by Witzel and built on York Theatre School students, the RESISTIBLE rise of arturo UI is quintessential RLD. Low budget, high concept, Brecht (!), modern political relevance, damning social commentary, whiteface (!), thoughtful gender manipulation, interesting use of music, snark: Witzel at his old self best. It begins with the utter horror of audience interaction as the hardcore cast of seriously promising young actors puts you through the paces of a mandatory patdown before you take your seat, followed by a barrage of pleasant young girls pretending to be sleazy old men hitting on every audience member they can get near. The theatre is freezing, there are sinister white faces everywhere, and, if you sit too close, you may get yam on your shoes. Your comfort, to say the least, is not the goal here.
The goal is to rouse and torture you, to bring out laughter both awkward and hearty then make you feel helpless, hopeless and corrupt. It’s a goal that is more than met over the course of the excellently conceived though a little draggy play. Jennifer Wise’s translation of Brecht’s text could use a fat trim and there’s the occasional moment of over-indulgence in Witzel’s stylized, self-aware direction, but, for the most part, the RESISTIBLE rise of arturo UI is as clever, interesting and entertaining as it is arty, dark and German.
From the generally strong ensemble, three actresses in particular stand out (This is, notably, a women’s world despite the complete dearth of female characters. A necessity based on the gender breakdown of York’s theatre program or a directorial commentary on gender/power issues? I have my suspicions; you can have yours). The first is Tiana Asperjan, the most engrossing in the somewhat faceless lineup of “Cauliflower Trust” men. Tough, sympathetic and a little frightening, Asperjan’s Clark is by far the most successful of the slightly caricatured men-via-women in the ensemble (her detailed posture and walk pair with a Walken-y speech pattern to great effect). Another major standout is Sheri Godda who plays more characters than almost the entire rest of the cast combined (I believe the number is 8). She flits breezily between accents, physicalities and temperaments, seeming to break herself into eight parts rather than run between them. Her enlightened fool character Mahoney- the unfortunate former actor tasked with curing the titular gangster of his embarrassing lisp- is a comic highlight of the play while her no-nonsense defense lawyer is the most promisingly smart and kind character on stage. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Daniela Pagliarello’s intriguingly layered Ui. Her rough-edged, dark souled, thin-skinned interpretation of the Hitler-inspired character is chilling. And she somehow makes the concept of a dancing dictator not at all funny.
I haven’t felt so cleverly cornered by a piece of theatre since, well, since The Witch of Edmonton dared me to break from the crowd and help a beleaguered outcast back to her feet (note: I didn’t take the dare and I still feel bad about it). Amidst an honestly entertaining piece of theatre (tap shoes to simulate gunshots? Fantastic!), Witzel and his company of players are able to comment on the world-changing danger of mob mentality and fear mongering, raise the spirit of defiance in a few individuals and squash it down in most others, creating at once a criticism of passive publics and a sort of frightening feeling of kinship with them (the most obvious example being your average 1930s German citizen). the rise of arturo UI is, in theory, RESISTIBLE and the runtime of Act II is left open to the remote possibility that that resistance might actually come. Sadly, human history tells us it never will.
the RESISTIBLE rise of arturo UI plays until December 7th at The Great Hall Black Box (1087 Queen St W, Toronto).