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A Man's A Man
by Rich See
Written by Bertolt Brecht over 80 years ago, A Man's A Man is one of the playwright's earliest works and is amazingly relevant to today's world of mass marketing, disposable consumption, and globalization fraught with nationalist pride and sound-bite infused patriotism. The German-born author wrote the play between the First and Second World Wars after his critically acclaimed Drums in the Night and before his extremely successful The Threepenny Opera. Subsequently A Man's A Man incorporates touches derived from German music-hall performances, vaudeville, and silent films. An interesting footnote to the playwright is that Brecht didn't concern himself too much with historical accuracy. Consequently if you find yourself at a dinner party discussing A Man's A Man, the play should not be used as a reference for stating who the reigning British monarch was or in what part of India Kilkoa is located. In 1925 Britain was ruled by a King, not a Queen, and Kilkoa does not exist.
Man's premise is simple -- to save their own skins, three army buddies turn Galy Gay, a na´ve dock worker, into a human fighting and killing machine. The absurdity which Brecht uses to fulfill this quest is at once both outrageous and frightening and asks the question "Is a man's identity his own or is it interchangeable? Something that can be given and taken away at will?" And, if the answer is "yes." then "What are the consequences to the individual and to the greater whole of society?" Brecht's thoughts on the subject become very clear as his innocent Galy Gay leaves wife and home for a ten minute trip to the market to purchase a fish for dinner and subsequently becomes entangled in a life altering scheme to assist his fellow man while also earning himself several cases of cigars and beer. But his wager will ultimately cost him more than he realizes.
Hungarian director Enikő Eszenyi's American debut is quite exciting, not just for Arena Stage, but also for Washington, DC audiences. Her cast is perfectly timed, the production flows seamlessly, and at times it is so natural that you almost wonder, "Is this the play or has something gone wrong with the ushering system?" (See the play and you'll see what I mean.) The piece never lags and even the most contrived aspects of the plot and some of the more confusing bits of dialogue go over well and make sense as the plot progresses.
Set Designer Karl Eigsti has created a sandy, dirt filled stage that resembles a sand box. With opening and closing fox holes (think the Wack-A-Mole arcade game), huge piles of glistening elephant dung (don't worry they don't smell), and set pieces descending from the ceiling or rising from the floor, it's all an appropriate analogy for a play about life, the world, and war.
Ilona Somogyi's costumes are terrific, especially her Widow Begbick's outfits, which go from theatre usher to Hindu Priestess to Mata Hari to leather clad femme fatale to brothel owner to fatigue-clad army follower. The men's military outfits transport you back to the 1920's while Galy Gay's dock porter's clothing fits the bill, especially the cap that ultimately represents his former self. The original music composed by David Maddox and Dwayne Nitz is lovely, while Timothy M. Thompson's sound design keeps us in tune with the action on the stage.
Among the cast, Valerie Leonard's the widow Leocadia Begbick keeps the story flowing as participant and narrator. Moving between narration, self-interested business owner, and obsessed woman in love, she shows a great flexibility in delivery and comedic timing. Zachary Knower's Galy Gay is an amiable fellow who in his wife's words "can't say no" and his slow metamorphosis into a killing machine is both believable and disturbing. Jane Beard, as Mrs. Galy Gay, is especially touching when she is spurned by her husband.
Michael Hogan, James Ludwig, Michael Mandell and David Fendig as the looting machine gun company are each excellent. Hogan's Uriah Shelley borders on psychopathic, while Ludgwig's Mahoney and Fendig's Baker seem like two guys trying to make it through a war without getting killed. Michael Mandell as Jeraiah Jip, the man Galy Gay will ultimately replace is very funny and if scatological humor isn't your thing, it will be hard to watch Fendig dine on his "beef steak." Eszenyi makes another statement about the military and identity by casting an African American actor as Jip. While every one is searching for a soldier with a bald spot, no one seems to notice that Jip has suddenly become Caucasian. This really brings home the point that as long as Gay has a pay book, he has an identity; it's simply the warm body that counts not the human being within it.
C.S. Lee as the enterprising Mr. Wang is especially effective when he slides into broken English -- but only when the British soldiers are speaking to him. It's a pointed statement about native people's opinions of colonizing nations. Eduardo Placer's somersaults as Mah Sing bring a circus-like atmosphere to the production. And Tim Artz as Charles "Bloody Five" Fairchild is both funny and frightening as a man who alternately has uncontrollable lust when it rains and who can, without a second thought, shoot children in the back of the head. The fact that Mr. Artz and Mr. Knower are the only cast members to use slight accents (English and Irish respectively) is an interesting statement considering their two characters are the least remorseful of the violence that they inflict. Ryan Clardy and James O. Dunn flesh out the cast as soldiers assisting "Bloody Five." And the inclusion of the musicians, David Maddox and Dwayne Nitz, as part of the infantry works exceedingly well and continues the breaking of the fourth wall, which the entire play shines at doing.
Whether you see the play as an anti-war pronouncement, a discussion on the sanctity of personal identity, or simply as an absurdist comedy, this production is definitely worth seeing and enjoying.
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Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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