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January 30, 2014

REVIEW A Man's A Man by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Gerhard Nellhaus, original music by Duncan Sheik, directed by Brian Kulick, Classic Stage Company

... Brecht no way...

This early play of Brecht, set in British Colonial India, takes up the story of a pleasant minded civilian, an Irishman named Galy Gay, who -- on his way to buy fish for himself and his wife -- is waylaid by three soldiers whose fourth companion has disappeared and is, by force and brain washing (though that term came in later), turned into a enthused soldier, defined here as a killing machine. 

It's challenging to consider whether a man can be completely transformed, re-machined as Brecht would have it, in order to fulfill a role that fulfills the purposes of society's top dogs, but the play doesn't make the case.  The transitions are too abrupt, the change not convincing, and  so -- whatever the reality may be -- the premise appears silly.  The humanity that permeates Brecht’s best work is lacking here, and the play comes across as diagrammatic and over-long by someone whose full dramatic talent has yet to develop. 

Still, whatever the virtues of provoking thought and shaking up assumptions A Man's A Man may have, this production has an opulent flavor at odds with the play's biting, expressionistic character.  Among Hollywood-like touches, a vast ceiling-to-floor silvery curtain shimmers, a dead ringer for Christmas tree tinsel, to represent the façade of a mysterious, exotic temple within which one British soldier disappeared.  Generally the scale of stage elements, including a prop involving a fake elephant, and the comfortable lighting, contrast with the spare expressionistic vision the characterized the initial German production of 1926.  Anything can be worth doing but the visual extravagance in the Classic Stage production vitiates the drama and Brecht's tough-minded political point of view.    

Gibson Frazier brings power, if not irony, to the role of Galy Gay, particularly in the catalytic scene in which through cruel devices, he’s transformed into a machine-like soldier.   I think that in a production more true to the play’s essential expressionism, the schematic brutality and patent artificiality could have a strong impact.  Here it elicited the response:  “no way.” 

The part of Widow Behick -- a gutsy Mother Courage type of woman along the lines of those Brecht wrote into several of his plays -- is played by Justin Vivien Bond, a brilliant male drag performance artist.   It’s great fun to watch him -- he’s the highlight of the show and keeps it from feeling interminably dull -- but, although he takes seriously and acts well the few tender moments, the camp aspect of the performance robs the play of the natural humanity that perhaps a woman playing the part directly, without the distancing of camp, may have provided.

Duncan Sheik's music, contemporary but resonating with Kurt Weil, nostalgic but up-to-date, was appealing and I hope it finds its way into other Brecht productions since, though written for this one, it wouldn't be limited to it.  

Here’s a chance to see an early Brecht play, for some a reason to go -- but it’s far from being Brecht’s best, and this production sidesteps its essence in favor of scenic and other distractions. 

A Man's A Man plays at Classic Stage in Manhattan's East Village through February 16th, 2014.  For information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

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I see what you mean - still, despite some shortcomings in this production, I found this the totally enjoyable evening. It was both intellectually interesting and certainly emotionally satisfying to see the early Brecht. One saw the beginnings of what would become his major themes and characters. Just the idea of turning the simple carpenter – was this occupation chosen deliberately? – into the soldier, a killing machine was a significant statement. The music was delightful, the choreography was interesting and the acting was really good. Thank you Classic Stage for being willing to take a yet imperfect piece and present it so that audiences can see from whence a playwright evolved.

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