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A CurtainUp Review
A Man's a Man

It ain't the plan
For a man's a man
Since time began.
Tommy boy let me tell you, it really ain't the plan
For a man's a man.

— the four privates in a machine-gun section of the British Army in India singing in Bertolt Brecht's musical-like farce.
A Man's a Man
Stephen Spinella and Justin Vivian Bond (Photo: Richard Termine)
Shakespeare may be the hottest dead playwright on and off Broadway these days, but Bertolt Brecht is hardly forgotten. The leading political playwright of the last century is regularly produced with new translations and interpretations that prove his enduring relevancy.

The Foundry's terrific The Good Person of Sezchwan was successful enough to move to the Public Theater for a sold-out run that I thought was a lot more Broadway worthy than the rather gimmicky Romeo and Juliet. Brecht's biggest hit, Threepenny Opera (his collaboration with Kurt Weill), is getting an production this Spring at the Atlantic Theater that looks most intriguing.

In the meantime, the Classic Stage Company is following up last year's revival of The Caucasian Chalk Circle with a smartly staged very early and little known Brecht farce. In this his second play, the German-born author moved his locale to colonial India. He used a misguided theft of a treasure chest from a Hindu pagoda by four trouble-prone British soldiers — Polly Baker (Jason Babinsky), Jesse Mahoney (Steven Skybell), Jeraiah Jip (Andrew Weems), Uriah Shelley (Martin Moran)— to set up a wild and wacky ride to escape being tied to the crime.

The farcical set-up involves one of the men's incriminating injury necessitating hiding him and presenting a replacement to Bloody Five (Stephen Spinella), their commander. It's ripe for non-stop madness as well as a steady stream of razor-edged commentary on individual and political behavior patterns the world over.

This obscure work is not on a par with Good Person of Szechwan or Mother Courage. But, if done right, it can be a lot of fun and make its moral and political ideas resonate with contemporary audiences. Fortunately there's a lot that's right about this production.

For starters, very much is right about the stage craft. Lighting designer Justin Townsend has bathed the CSC stage in a somewhat eerie green that transports arriving theater goers feel as if they've entered a foreign world The CSC stage is bathed in a somewhat eerie green light. Scenic designer Paul Steinberg imaginative use of orange oil barrels as props gives a distinct Brechtian flair to the look of the production. Those oil barrels are meaningful as well as visually effective, in light of the text's pointed political remarks about why wars are fought — One of the battle bound soldier's "Anybody know who this war's against?" is answered with "If they need cotton it'll be Tibet and if they need oil, it'll be Pamir."

Director Kulick uses the movable barrels to choreograph some of the action, shades of the movement work of John Tiffany. These choreographed elements and Duncan Sheik's music makes this at times feel as if it wants to be a musical.

Adding to what's right about this A Man's a Man is the casting of Justin Vivian Bond of Kiki and Herb fame as the mercenary Widow Begbick who travels in her beer wagon canteen with the army. This sexy forerunner to the more famous Mother Courage looks great (a bravo here for costumer Gabriel Berry). She sings all the solo songs (Another bravo for sound designer Matt Kraus who makes Sheik's music sound live even though it's recorded). Bond even dishes up an extra Duncan Sheik song as a special intermission treat.

Most importantly this rarely done play provides a not to be missed opportunity to not only see future characters in embryo but to see the first example of the theme that was to dominate Brecht's entire oeuvre: the concept of man's changeability. In A Man's a Man the character embodying that concept is Galy Gay (Gibson Frazier), the ordinary laborer on his way to buy fish for dinner with his wife (Alan K. Washington, who also plays two other small roles) dinner who is enlisted by the soldiers to take the missing Jeraiah Jip's place.

As director Brian Kulick explains in CSC's helpful program supplement, Beckett developed this pivotal concept of changeability in two formats. The mode is tragic when a character cannot change (think Mother Courage). Tragedy becomes comedy, when someone changes, as Galy Gay does when he's ensnared like the fish he set out to purchase by the wily soldiers looking for a substitute Jeraiah Jip.

Though there's plenty of comic potential in having the naive Gali Gay take the bait of a few cases of cigars and beer to help the soldiers to deceive their commander. But, this being Brecht, the cigars end up costing a lot more and the situation becomes a more frightening than funny as the good-hearted Galy Gay turns as corrupt as everyone else — that goes for the Indians as well as the Brits. The ability of a harmless man to become a human weapon of corruption and destruction goes to the heart of the question raised as to whether a man's identity is his own to control.

Despite all these assets, the production has its downside. Gordon Frazier is an okay Galy Gay but the role calls for an actor more able to bring out this innocent abroad's Chaplinesque qualities. The rest of the cast is also more okay than really outstanding and their comic antics are only fitfully funny. The usually fine Ching Valdes-Aran isn't well used as Mr. Wang. Even Stephen Spinella, a powerhouse performer, doesn't really make as strong as usual an impression. And entertaining as Justin Vivian Bond is, he/she would be even better if Mr. Kulick reined in the widow's tendency to camp it up a bit too much. It would not have been a bad idea either to rein in the frequent breaking of the fourth wall by having the actors address questions to people in the front and center row.

Finally, as one of our critics who who reviewed a production in DC ten years ago pointed out , Brecht didn't concern himself too much with historical accuracy. Consequently don't count on any accurate historical enlightenment about who the reigning British monarch was at that time or in what part of India In 1925 Britain was ruled by a King, not a Queen, and Kilkoa did not exist. That said, and the flaws notwithstandin seeing this revival is worth a visit to Classic Stage, especially for Brecht scholars and enthusiasts.

A Man's a Man by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Gerhard Neilhaus
Directed by Brian Kulick
Original Music: Duncan Sheik
Cast: Justin Vivian Bond (Widow Begbick) Jason Babinsky (Polly Baker), Gibson Frazier (Galy Gay), Martin Moran (Uriah Shelley), Steven Skybell (Jesse Mahoney), Stephen Spinella (Bloody Five), Ching Valdes-Aran (Mr. Wang), Allan K. Washington (Ensemble) Andrew Weems (Jeraiah Jip)
Scenic design: Paul Steinberg
Costume design: Gabriel Berry
Lighting design: Justin Townsend
Sound design:Matt Kraus
Stage Manager: Samantha Watson
Running Time: Approx. 2 1/2 hours with one intermission Classic Stage Company 136 East 13th Street
From 1/10/14; opening 1/30/14; closing 2/16/14
Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.
Tickets start at $60.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at January 25th press preview
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