215. A MAN’S A MAN
It’s good to see something of a Bertolt Brecht resurgence in New York, with Brian Kulick’s revival of A MAN’S A MAN now at the CSC, and with his CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE at the same venue earlier in the season, following Lear deBessonet’s staging of THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN at La Mama (and later at the Public). Of the three, however, only Ms. deBessonet’s scintillating GOOD PERSON was exceptional. Mr. Kulick’s CHALK CIRCLE was a dull misfire, but, in retrospect, it shines much more brightly when compared to his unimpressive version of Brecht’s A MAN’S A MAN (1924-1926), now at the Classic Stage Company in a translation by Gerhard Nellhaus, with original music by Duncan Sheik.
From left: Martin Moran, Gibson Frazier, Steven Skybell, Jason Babinsky. Photo: Richard Termine.
A MAN’S A MAN is a Chaplinesque, antiwar, and deliberately anachronistic comedy about the malleability of man’s identity in the machine age (you can take a man apart and make him into anything you want), set among British soldiers in a fantastical India (mainly the imaginary city of Kilkoa) under imperialist rule; it underwent several revisions at Brecht's hand, and Nellhaus’s translation—stiffly artificial, with conversational conjunctions like “can’t” winning out to “cannot”—is said to be based on the latest one. Influenced by Kipling and Pirandello, the potentially thought-provoking play, which sometimes borders on music-hall farce, tells of how when one member of a four-man British machine gun squad, Jeraiah Jip (Andrew Weems, replacing Bill Buell, injured during previews), is in a pickle after the quartet attempts to burglarize a Tibetan pagoda; during the heist he lost a patch of hair and skin, making him easily identifiable if found. Jip finds refuge when made into the pagoda’s deity by its leader, Mr. Wang (Ching Valdes-Aran). To save their own necks, the remaining soldiers need someone to replace Jip, so one of them, Uriah Shelley (Martin Moran), gets the idea of transforming the lowly, meek Irish porter, Galy Gay (Gibson Frazier), into Jip, turning him into a ferocious fighting machine. Galy goes along for the promised rewards. He's finagled into carrying out a swindle involving a phony elephant constructed of army goods, and is sentenced to death. This prompts him to abandon his identity, eulogize his own presumed corpse, and become a murderously successful warrior who wins the battle against an enemy fortress. Then the real Jip reappears and assumes the persona of Galy Gay. Still-relevant themes touch on “mass marketing, disposable consumption, and globalization fraught with nationalist pride and sound-bite infused patriotism,” as a reviewer wrote some years back about the lauded 2004 Arena Stage revival.
A MAN’S A MAN, given a notable New York revival with an Obie-winning performance of Galy Gay by Joe Chaikin in the 1962-1963 season, begs for a highly stylized production, and Mr. Kulick attempts to offer one by placing the episodic action within a scenic world, designed by Paul Steinberg, dominated by a mostly green upstage wall and 15 metal barrels painted orange that are rolled, carried, or dragged into a variety of configurations to conjure up whatever locales are needed; by placing a wide board across them, a makeshift stage is created. Even the elephant is formed out of an arrangement of barrels. Apart from this notion (diminished somewhat by the unappealing color scheme redolent of New York's Department of Sanitation) and the musical numbers that Brecht incorporated into the text, not much else is notably innovative. The choice of drag performer, Justin Vivian Bond, to play the caustically philosophical canteen owner, Widow Leocadia Begbick, might be considered a creative breakthrough, but there’s nothing in Mr. Bond’s standard drag performance to suggest anything particularly subversive or artistically noteworthy, nor why having a man play the character is necessary (oh, yes, the ease with which identity can be manipulated). Despite his height, which makes him tower over most of the other actors, Mr. Bond is a convincing woman, but not a convincing character. Even Galy Gay’s wife is played by a man (Allan K. Washington), by the way, although not in full drag and obviously as a “this is theatre” play-acting bit. With A MAN’S A MAN Brecht was developing his famed “estrangement” or “alienation” effect, and encouraged byplay between actors and audience, but such improvisational behavior appears only faintly in this production.
Stephen Spinella, Justin Vivian Bond. Photo: Richard Termine.
The acting company is ill suited to the play’s satiric demands, at least as conceived by Mr. Kulick. Stephen Spinella, perhaps the best-known actor, plays the macho Sergeant “Bloody Five,” a man who becomes extremely aroused sexually whenever it rains, but the usually reliable Mr. Spinella is miscast (as he was last season playing the lecherous Volpone in Jonson’s Elizabethan comedy) and adrift, looking as helpless as his character, who ultimately shoots off his testicles (which is how Mr. Kulick stages the scene of his self-castration). The central role of Galy Gay (pronounced variously when I saw the production to rhyme with Halley and Gaily, depending on the actor), is played by a charmless Mr. Frazier, who walks around with a cucumber in his hand almost as if he’s in a daze; his acting has so little color his transition from mouse to human machine gun is mildly ho hum. It’s difficult to play a cipher-like character, but the actor needs to find some way to make the man theatrically compelling. Mr. Frazier’s flat performance is replicated in one way or the other by the other actors, who slog through the play with nary a nod to brisk pacing or vivacity, or even consistency of accent.
Martin Moran, Jason Babinsky, Gibson Frazier, Steven Skybell. Photo: Richard Termine.
The music by Mr. Sheik (SPRING AWAKENING) is largely forgettable, apart from a ballad sung in the second act by the Widow Begbick. Ironically, the best number, another ballad, is not in the show itself, but was cut from the second act and is being presented by Mr. Bond during the intermission. I don’t recall ever seeing a show in which a song found extraneous during the action was considered too good to throw away entirely, thereby prompting its separate performance. This, of course, is appropriate to the alienation effect, but what it’s intended to get us thinking about (other than its odd placement) remains as muddy as so much else in the production.
By alienation, or estrangement, Brecht intended his audience to be one step removed from identifying with the characters and story so that they would remain in touch with the ideas being expressed. He wanted his spectators to think about the issues being revealed, presumably so they could do something about them. This production of A MAN’S A MAN managed to alienate me, but not, however, in the way that Brecht had hoped.