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A CurtainUp Review
Man Is Man
The Elephant Brigade's production, helmed by the Dutch director Paul Binnerts, is certainly true to Brecht's vision of epic theater. The actors are always onstage, in full view of the audience, as they change costumes and prepare props. They address the audience. They speak into microphones.
Binnerts, whose impressive resume includes many productions of Brecht's work, is also the founder of his own school of theater called "real-time theater" which calls for a style of acting that is "precise, nonchalant, complete and transparent," so that the actors can function as intermediaries between the play and the audience. Binnert claims it gives plays "a new coat of paint."
So far so good, but why Binnert thought he needed to add video cameras taping actors and props and then project these images on a screen is anyone's guess. Nor is it apparent why he decided to cast a woman (Natalie Kun) in the lead role of Galy Gay, a porter in colonial British India, or for that matter, what is the purpose of the toy soldiers and remote-controlled tanks.
Brecht's basic story is not complicated. Galy Gay is kidnapped by a company of soldiers who need him to replace the missing Jeriah Jip (Lauren Blumenfeld). The soldiers are led by the brutal Sgt. Charles Fairchild (Justin Lauro). Through a series of coercive acts, they transform the mild-mannered porter into a vicious killer, not unlike themselves. The Widow Begbick (Sarah Wood), who sells beer to the soldiers, is both the narrator and the playwright's spokesperson.
Man Is Man's message is not merely that war is hell. Brecht also portrays man as a malleable creature who, under the right conditions, can be turned into something even his mother wouldn't recognize. The story is elevated to mythic proportions by the playwright's brilliant use of language and allegory.
Brecht himself gives the director plenty of tools to produce the desired effect. All the tricks Binnerts pulls out of his bag are not only unnecessary; they are also a distraction. And the gender switches are merely confusing at best and at worst a cheap trick and a shortcut. In Binnerts' interpretation, the production overwhelms the play. What's worse, Binnerts loses all the comedy (another distancing technique) Brecht put into even his most morbid dramas. Brecht, a forerunner of Beckett, understood the futility of life; but, like Beckett, he knew the value of humor.
There's some fine acting in this production. Kuhn is as convincing as possible in a role for which she is totally miscast. Wood is seductive and tragic. Her lines are some of the most important in the play. And she does them justice.
Tristin Daley, Eric Eastman and Brandon "B" Goodman, as the three army buddies who cook up the plot, are sadistically authentic. They are most effective when Binnerts just lets them speak.
When all is done, Man Is Man is somewhat successful despite the unnecessary directorial flourishes. This is partly due to the uniformly excellent acting and partly due to the Brecht's wonderful, evocative language. Thank goodness, sometimes you just can't mess up genius.
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