Play with Trump-like themes set to open at Eagles Lodge

photo by: Nick Krug

Flanked by two bodyguards played by Jennifer Bennett, left, and Dorian Logan, Arturo Ui, played by Kitty Steffens, delivers a blistering campaign speech during a dress rehearsal for The

If the titular antagonist of Card Table Theatre’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” reminds you of a certain colorful self-described-billionaire turned presidential candidate, you’re not alone.

Similarities to Donald Trump, both in rhetoric and coiffure, are easy to recognize in Ui, a Chicago gangster doubling as an allegorical Hitler in Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 satire about the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany. It’s partly why director Will Averill chose to stage the play now, just as Trump has all but officially cinched the Republican nomination amid a primary election marked by divisiveness and disillusionment on both sides.

“I think with the current and widening gap in income, the type of anger that we are seeing (with) the system and the type of frustration that Donald Trump is tapping into, I think, is almost exactly a blueprint for what was happening in 1930s Germany,” Averill says.

Card Table Theatre’s production, which opens at 7:30 p.m. May 19 at the Eagles Lodge, reminds the audience that what took place some 90 years ago in a Germany plagued by hyperinflation and unemployment could just as easily happen at any time, anywhere — if the conditions are right.

“It’s not necessarily specifically just Trump, but we wanted to show that it could be anybody,” Averill adds. “Hitler was not an anomaly.”

Hitler meets Al Capone meets Shakespeare’s Richard III in “Arturo Ui,” which follows one unremarkable thug’s ascent to power in Depression-era Chicago and nearby Cicero, which stand in for Germany and Austria, respectively. Ui’s band of hoodlums (read: several real-life Nazi figures) assists him in his takeover of the local cauliflower trade, an allegory for Germany’s struggling economy.

At the Eagles Lodge, “Arturo Ui” is staged in the Brechtian style of Epic theatre, in which audiences are encouraged to not identify emotionally with the characters but instead engage in rational self-reflection and a critical view of the onstage action. Card Table Theatre’s all-female cast (a first in the play’s history, from what Averill can tell) has nine actresses playing more than 40 roles, a move Averill hopes will focus attention on what the characters represent rather than their individual narratives.

Then there’s the venue itself, the Eagles Lodge’s east ballroom with its wood-paneled walls and “old high-school gym” vibe, which Averill likens to a “time capsule of the ’40s and ’50s.”

“It just seemed ripe to make into the feel of a working man’s club where people would often go for meetings or soup dinners and pancake feeds, and then there would be prayers or maybe a short sermon or political talk,” he says. “It’s a tongue-in-cheek throwback to the 1920s breadline soup kitchen culture.”

In Card Table Theatre’s staging, guests will be served soup and hear a short prayer before the action begins — “the lecture in this place will be the play,” says Averill.

Brecht also championed total theater, which emphasized the use of all theatrical elements — lighting, costumes, sets, film projections, music — so Card Table Theatre follows in that vein with its mishmash of video production, soundtrack (“smart, political artists” from Hank Williams to Dead Kennedys to Rage Against the Machine), striking costumes designed by Dusty Shaffer and even shadow puppetry.

“He came from a beer hall tradition of staging things in smaller venues — or even large venues — but always for the people, by the people,” Averill, who hopes audiences of all political persuasions will check out the show, says of Brecht.

Originally, Brecht intended to open his play in America, but audiences were shocked by its suggestion that the freedom-loving U.S.A. could produce a Hitler of its own, Averill thinks, and refused to produce it here.

Instead, “Arturo Ui” opened in Stuttgart, West Germany, in 1958. Brecht had died two years before, and German critics, as he had feared, did not receive the play well.

Trump’s “us versus them” tactics, as Averill describes the strategy that has called for the nationwide banning of Muslims (Trump recently softened on that stance, claiming it was “just a suggestion”) and the construction of a border wall funded by the Mexican government are not unlike language used by Hitler during his ascent, Averill contends.

And an America frustrated by the current political system and changing social mores is embracing it. As much as people “discarded” Trump at first, he’s since become a viable candidate, much to Averill’s surprise, he says.

“Now, will that continue or will be smart enough to step up and say, ‘This is wrong — we treat each other better than this’? That’s the real question,” he says. “Six months ago, I would have laughed if we’d have the same conversation and said, ‘No, we’re far too smart to be in that mess.’ Right now, I’m honestly not too sure.”

If you go
What: Card Table Theatre’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui”
When: 7:30 p.m. May 19-21
Where: Eagles Lodge, 1803 W. Sixth St.
Cost: $7.50 for the Thursday show and $15 for the Friday and Saturday shows. Tickets are available at the door or at