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Wednesday, Aug 13 1997
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. By Bertolt Brecht. Directed by Nicole Malkin. Starring Frank Torrano, Nick Sholley, Wendy Wilcox, and Erin Merritt. Presented by Unconditional Theater at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 16th Street), through Aug. 16. Call 285-9776.

Adolf Hitler has gone down in history a little unfairly as a monstrous symbol of Ultimate Evil, a reputation that gives him a mystique he hardly deserves. Hitler was a petty, arid little bohemian from provincial Austria who failed as a painter but succeeded as a xenophobic thug. He rode to power on German discontent, anti-Semitism, and the talent for politics that petty, arid little men often have. The sharpest satire of him may be Bertolt Brecht's political cartoon The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which caricatures Hitler as a gangster strong-arming a cabal of grocery distributors in Chicago.

The play tells a story parallel to Hitler's, involving the Chicago-area "Cauliflower Trust." After 1929 the Trust has trouble moving its merchandise, so its members convince an old banker to let a thug named Ui organize and protect their interests. Ui's men guard warehouses, safeguard trucks, and put down strikes, consolidating their position with machine guns; and at the end Arturo gives a pompous, fist-thumping speech declaring that "peace has been achieved in the vegetable trade" -- Chicago is finally safe for the transportation of kohlrabi, cauliflower, etc. The effect of that speech, especially in the Unconditional Theater Company's current production, is both quaint and disturbing.

Two major reasons why this production works well are Frank Torrano and Nick Sholley. Torrano is a stormy, thick-jowled Italian man who shouts like Mussolini and has the shoulders to wear sharp, gangsterish suits -- he plays Ui. Sholley does an excellent job with two roles, first as the narrator who puts Ui's farcical violence into context by giving brief parallels with Hitler at strategic points in the play; and also as Dogsborough, the decrepit capitalist who stands for President Hindenburg. Sholley plays him with a quavering voice, stooped over, flickering his tongue, delivering lines like "These old eyes have seen what evil can come from penury" with a nice balance of irony and conviction. Lizzie Robinson is good as Dogsborough's son; and she steals the show as an exuberantly snobbish actor in a yellow beret giving Ui lessons in bearing and diction. Josh Marchesi also nails all his roles: The energy and persuasive Irish accent he brings to the investigator O'Casey, who doesn't trust Ui, drives one of the play's liveliest scenes.

What isn't clear is why Unconditional Theater decided to stage this play right now. The program has two quotes about gender roles in Nazi Germany, and some not totally successful gender-swapping in the cast suggests a link between rigid sex roles and tyranny; but the idea doesn't get developed. The only topical hints are "San Anselmo" and "San Francisco," injected slyly into a list of cities that need their vegetables protected. It's true that Ui focuses on the ways capitalism greased Hitler's path to power -- on big and little corruptions that exist right now in America -- but it totally ignores the calculated way Hitler stoked the flames of racial separation, and the huge political return he got for that.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Scent of a Woman
I, Who Have Nothing. Written and performed by Varla Jean Merman. At Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint, 3583 16th St. (at Market), July 16 to Aug. 2. Call 861-7933.

My sister, visiting from a suburban L.A. enclave, had never been to a drag show before; but I got more out of Varla Jean Merman's performance than a fun evening of tweak-the-naive-tourist. Merman is refined, plucked, and painted -- as my sister put it, "She's more woman than I'll ever be." Elegant and entertaining, Merman knows more about the ornaments of femininity than can be gleaned from the pages of Vogue. Starting with her irresistible press photos -- flawless pearly skin and a Billy Idol snarl -- the singer blurs the line between what is feminine and what is artifice. She made all the accouterments of traditional glamour look easy: the coated lips, the clingy pantyhose, a dress that cast champagne bubbles of light on the wall.

She was touted as the illegitimate crossbreed of Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman. Her cabaret songs were equally strange hybrids, rolling from an "I Will Survive"/Madama Butterfly medley into a song about pork products and trichinosis. Her "Ne Me Quitte Pas," sung in English, hit notes lower than Nina Simone's voice can limbo. The mountainous peaks and troughs of her vocal range defied expectations as an overlit black-and-white video of Merman dancing with a stuffed bird backed the torch-song classic. Then the film turned surreal: Merman's head was stuck in a cage, trapped like the object of her affections. Turned out Merman was attempting a multimedia spectacular, though she wasn't fully familiar with the term: " 'Multi' meaning many, 'media,' uh, something you plug in," she explained to the audience. On opening night she fumbled with the remote control, but the technical difficulties didn't ruffle her diva demeanor; she smiled gently and moved on to the next song.

Home videos from New Orleans and stage patter charted her growth from awkward man-child in a cheap wig to paragon of feminine manners. A low point: rinsing out her panties in the Times Square McDonald's. It was these confessional moments, her vulnerability exposed, that gave a poignant twinge to the camp. Her historical videos revealed that those elements of elegance were only mastered after diligent rehearsal. Every bump, grind, and sparkle was the product of lots of practice, from donning fake eyelashes to the stunt of squirting spray cheese down her throat during an aria about the tasty varieties of brie and Swiss. The final number was a snappy and scatological ditty about why she continues to tuck away her gender-defining member instead of going for the final cut. Ghastly appendage aside, everything about Varla Jean Merman oozed ladylike charm.


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