The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Catalyst Theater Company brings Bertolt Brecht’s chilling satire of the early career of Adolf Hitler to the friendly confines of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Written in exile from Germany while World War II still burned, Arturo Ui imagines Hitler as a comical gangster who sets out to organize the vegetable-sellers’ rackets in Chicago. With a thick Bronx accent, Arturo Ui and his henchmen are figures of fun out of a bad Jimmy Cagney movie—at least until the death toll begins to mount and Ui invades neighboring Austria (or Cicero, as the play would have it).

Scot McKenzie’s inhabiting of Ui is at its most frightening when he pauses in a climactic monologue and just stares us down. This before launching a stunning Hitlerian tirade that swamps the black box theater and the handful of cast members who provide background applause.

The evenly-matched ensemble cast of eight executes multiple duties, serving as scene shifters, lighting operators, and a three-piece orchestra. Some of the scene shifts take longer than we would like, but most transitions are covered by slide-show projections that establish the connection between events in the play and those in 1930’s Germany. Standouts include Grady Weatherford’s sotted Fish, scapegoated for the play’s Reichstag Fire stand-in; as well as Scott McCormick and his robust baritone, placed in the service of Butcher, Giri, and other roles, and a brisk second-act opening song.

  • The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, by Bertolt Brecht, directed by Christopher Gallu, Catalyst Theater Company, Washington

A leitmotiv

So I’m working my way through Don DeLillo’s Underworld, and the Fred F. French Building keeps making recurring appearances along with the atomic bombs and piles of garbage and various movies and Bobby Thomson’s home run. And I asked, “Who was Fred F. French?” in much the same way that the character Rochelle does. Well, James Morrison answers the question.

A mystery

So I went down into the basement yesterday evening to check something in a book (the end of Willie Stark), and then I went over to the workroom side to make sure that the sump pump was working and everything was dry. (A couple days of steady rian for us.) I didn’t turn the light on, but I could see something in the bottom of the utility sink, like a big crumpled up leaf. Now every once in a while a camel cricket will get trapped in the sink. I’ll run the water in the sink, and the cricket will hop around angrily, and I will ignore it. “Hey, you were the one who hopped into the sink.” Sometimes I will feel compassionate, and I will catch the cricket and let it outside.

But this was a lot bigger than a cricket. So I turned the light on, and there in the sink, stiffer than a porn star, was a dead mouse. How did it get there? Did it crawl into the basement to escape the rain? Has it been living in my house for some time? Are there more mice that I need to worry about? How long has it been there? The last time I remember being in the basement was Sunday to do laundry. I think it was Sunday. Was it dying already when it got trapped in the sink? What’s it doing in my utility sink? A dead mouse.


For the remainder of the month, I’m taking a short class from Mitchell Hébert through Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s education program. My scene partner Michelle and I are working on the gentleman caller scene from Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Part of the assigned prep work is journaling the process: we’re writing both about the life of these two characters, as well as what’s going on with us as we do the work—what barriers and fears are we fighting through? So most of my introspection about the class is going into the paper journal, rather than into the blogosphere. But that’s okay: the point of this journaling exercise is to get at messy stuff, stuff not for public consumption. And, considering reactions to some earlier posts of mine, it’s probably just as well that I keep most of my rehearsal hall thoughts to myself.

That said, I’m enjoying the class. With the exception of vipassana meditation, most of the techniques are familiar to me. What I’ve been missing for a while is the imposed structure of applying them to the preparation of a role.

Watching an invasion

David A. Fahrenthold updates the status of the local population of northern snakeheads in the Potomac River and its tributary creeks, where the fish is an alien species.

…Snakeheads are thriving. Virginia state scientists who use electric current to stun and capture fish in these creeks used to catch one snakehead every five hours. This year, they got 6.9 fish an hour, nearly 35 times more.

But the snakeheads don’t appear to have had a serious impact on the river’s largemouth or smallmouth bass, which are also top predators in the river. Scientists say they believe this might be because the snakeheads prefer shallower water or different prey.

A Prayer for Owen Meany

Plays that trade on the theme of Marilyn Monroe (Oates’s Miss Golden Dreams, Russell’s Blood Brothers) are rarely successful, though I can’t articulate why. Perhaps they mistake icon for import. Simon Bent’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany likewise fails to impress.

Despite some highly theatrical technical elements—a flying actor; basketballs dropping from the sky; and an overwhelming set piece in the third act that involves revealing the back wall of the theater, painted as the Stars and Stripes three stories high while Vietnam War dead are delivered home by forklift—Irving’s black comedy of faith leaves us wondering why this story had to be told. It is the story of diminutive Owen, a “boy with a wrecked voice” who has premonitions of his own death and a heroic sacrifice. In a setting of New England grotesques out of Thornton Wilder, and told in tightly cued overlapping scenes, preternaturally spiritual Owen takes on the role of a wise child. The trouble is that Irving, Bent, director Blake Robison, and actor Matthew Detmer have given Owen a comically squeaky voice more appropriate to Burr Tillstom and Fran Allison’s clown puppet Ollie. Owen’s pronouncements of wisdom against the tradition-bound clerics of his hometown are flat and trite; he comes off as a grating smartass more at home on Saturday morning television. Maybe the idea worked better in the book.

The play picks up some momentum in the third act with an unsettling visitation by Lenny Bruce and Owen goes off to war. Too little, too late.

  • A Prayer for Owen Meany, novel by John Irving, adapted by Simon Bent, directed by Blake Robison, Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Maryland

At the Park: 1

We went out for a short morning to work on the nest boxes at the Park. Since we forgot to bring a drill so that we could mount new boxes, all we accomplished was tearing down box 60. This wasn’t too hard to do, even without tools, because 60 was pretty ramshackle.

Paul spotted a couple of tail-bobbing Palm Warblers (Dedroica palmarum) and there were some lingering phoebes and swallows over the wetland. Or should we say, soon-not-to-be-wetland: lots of grassy vegetation and small willows and maples are springing up along the boardwalk.

slime moldI found several silvery masses of a slime mold in a rotting tree down along Barnyard Run. The lowest such mass (in the image) was a few feet over my head, about the size of my fist.

Some links: 7

Advice from Buster MacLeod on choosing and achieving goals. As you might expect, the tip most resonant with me is the low-tech one:

4. Talk to friends about your goals. You can write a thousand entries on your blog about your goals, but real accountability and a surprising amount of support comes from simply talking about your goals in social settings. Relationships are strengthened by people helping each other, and good friends want to help each other. Also, find ways to help them with their goals too.

Devil Guts

Justin Runyon et al. from Penn State demonstrate that dodder (Cuscuta pentagona), a parasitic orange-stemmed vine, uses chemical scents to find host plants. We see a lot of dodder in the Huntley Meadows Park wetland, and I think it’s a fascinating creation. Not for nothing is it called “Witches’ Shoelaces.” But I would no doubt feel differently if I were this tomato plant.