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A parable for a moral lesson

Small-time gangster Arturo Ui sets out to take over the Chicago cauliflower trade by ruthlessly disposing of the opposition in Bertolt Brecht's surprisingly contemporary and comical take on the rise of fascism in a free society.

"The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" — written in just a few weeks in 1941 by the German playwright while he waited for a visa to leave Finland for America — is a satirical allegory of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany prior to World War II.

"It's sort of a teaching moment for Brecht, like all his plays, about the rise of power and how we as citizens respond to it — or not," says Jackie Apodaca, associate professor and director of the Southern Oregon University Theatre Arts' production of "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui."

"What is so fantastic is Brecht is saying that it didn't need to happen," she says. "But we didn't resist it, and we let it happen. Clearly, this is a time in our country when there's so much angry rhetoric about the presidential and senate elections that we should be looking at who is seeking power, why they are seeking power and what does the citizenry do about it."

A cast and crew of SOU theater students will present Brecht's play 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, Nov. 10-12 and Nov. 17-19, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 19-20, at the Black Swan Theatre on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival campus, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. Tickets are $21, $18 for seniors and $6 for students and can be purchased online at oca.sou.edu/box-office or by calling 541-552-6348.

OSF's Black Swan is an alternative venue while SOU's Theatre Building is under reconstruction and expansion.

"Brecht is looking specifically at the rise of a fascist dictator who is pitting people against each other in order to achieve power, and that's something that we see in a lot of our current political conversation," Apodaca says. "I've been careful to not make it about any specific political figure."

There are parallels and similarities throughout the script, she says. The play's events are based on real historical persons or facts, specific events that allowed Hitler to rise to power, compromises and deals with the devil that allowed him to gain followers and certain ranks and posts.

"They thought they could control him," Apodaca says. "They didn't believe he would carry out such monstrous plans. Some of the things he was saying were thought to be rhetoric. They didn't believe any of it would really happen because the political system was too strong. The resistance to his rise to power was pushed aside in an attempt for his followers to gain their own political capital and bond with his supporters.

"So there are similarities in terms of what compromises do we accept from our candidates or political figures, and what does that mean for us as a culture?" she asks. "The rhetoric that our candidates currently use is not new rhetoric. We're responding to very old stuff like populism, stuff as old as politics. This play is entertainment as well as a lesson in political science "

Apodaca and her cast and crew are presenting a newer adaption of George Tabori's 1964 translation of "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," one souped up by Scottish playwright Alistair Beaton.

"Tabori's is the one that is most produced in English-speaking countries," Apodaca says. "Beaton's revision is a shortening, a streamlining of the Tabori."

Brecht set his allegory of Nazi Germany in the '30s in Chicago. His characters are archetypal and colorful gangsters taking over the grocery business by forcing vendors to pay protection money.

"He's created a Tony Soprano situation, because he's always trying to get us to look at things in humorous or shocking ways. He's made the allegory about cauliflower and the rise of a gangster to show us how someone can come to power in a system when people who occupy it aren't willing to resist," Apodaca says.

Southern Oregon University acting students, from left, Jon Cates, Connor Chaney, Cameron Gray and Brianca Knight appear in SOU's production of Bertolt Brecht's 'The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.' Photo courtesy of SOU