16 February 2014

'A Man’s a Man'

On 24 and 27 January, I published a two-part theater-history article on ROT called “Dueling Brechts” which related the saga of two nearly simultaneous Off-Broadway productions of Bertolt Brecht’s play Mann ist Mann in 1962.  One of the two was called A Man’s a Man, presented by the New Repertory Theatre Company in a translation by Eric Bentley; the other was entitled Man Is Man, directed by Julian Beck for the Living Theatre using a translation by Gerhard Nellhaus.  Mann ist Mann has never been a popular Brecht script, showing up on New York City stages maybe once every eight or 10 years, but the Classic Stage Company has just presented a new staging of A Man’s a Man using a translation by Nellhaus.  (The CSC staging is clearly based on one of Brecht’s later revisions of the play—he cut Widow Begbick’s three daughters out and shortened the script in 1931, which Nellhaus also translated, and later made more pointed intimations about Nazism to which he was vehemently opposed—but I don’t know which one Brian Kulick directed.)  The production began previews on 10 January and opened on 30 January; it closed today, 16 February.  My friend Diana and I caught the performance on Friday evening, 7 February, at CSC’s home on East 13th Street in the East Village.

A Man’s a Man is Brecht’s study of the mutability of the human character, including a person’s most fervently held beliefs and principles.  According to the playwright, anyone will abandon one personality and set of principles and take on another as exigency dictates, or, as Brecht put it in one of his first interviews, the play’s “about a man being taken to pieces and rebuilt as someone else for a particular purpose.”  Along the way, Brecht denigrates war and the military, the machine age and modern society, and capitalism.  Set in Brecht’s idea of Kiplingesque India in 1925, A Man’s a Man tells the story of the innocent and compliant Galy Gay, a simple Irish porter out to buy his wife a fish for their supper who’s enlisted by three British soldiers, Uriah Shelley, Polly Baker, and Jesse Mahoney, who need a replacement for one of their machinegun unit.  The soldiers had just tried to loot a temple for cash to buy beer, sustenance for the coming war, and had to leave their fourth man, Jeraiah Jip, behind when they fled.  The soldiers are terrified of their sergeant, the notorious Bloody Five, known for his bloodthirstiness both in battle and in the barracks, so they cajole, persuade, threaten, and hoodwink Gay into taking Jip’s place.  Along his way, Gay’s introduced to the Widow Begbick, the proprietor of a traveling canteen where the soldiers relax and carouse.  As Gay becomes more and more the kind of killing machine he’s led to believe he’s supposed to be, he witnesses his own “execution” and funeral, even delivering a eulogy for himself.  In the end, he takes part in a war against Tibet, single-handedly conquers a fortress, and is declared a hero for his ferocity.  He’s become the perfect soldier.  When Jip returns to reclaim his position, his former comrades turn him away with Gay’s old identity papers.  (A more detailed synopsis of the plot would probably be misleading and confusing.  It’s not quite “incomprehensible,” as the characters warn us in the performance, but it is absurd and alogical.  Telling a story was not Brecht’s point, you understand.)

In “Dueling Brechts,” I laid out a brief history of the play and some of its important productions, which I won’t recap here.  (Go to http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2014/01/dueling-brechts-part-1.html for those details.)  I will add, however, that six years before writing Mann ist Mann, Brecht started working on a play called Galgei, set in Munich, in which “some villains” tell “solid citizen” Joseph Galgei he’s “wicked” merchant Pick and Galgei eventually succumbs.  Over two days in 1926, fortified by “½  bottle of brandy, 4 bottles of seltzer and eight to ten cigars,” Brecht reported that he transformed Galgei into Mann ist Mann.   Between 1920 and 1926, during the script’s transition, Brecht took up the study of Marxism, rejected German Expressionism, and came under the influence of the Neue Sachlichkeit, which Kulick, also artistic director of CSC, translated as the “New Matter-of-Factness” (but which is very hard to pin down in English). 

Though I’ve read the script (principally in Nellhaus’s translation for the Living Theater mounting) and done research on those long-ago productions, I’d never seen a performance of any version of Mann ist Mann before now.  The CSC production was very interesting and well executed within director Kulick’s interpretation.  As I start to write this report, however, I haven’t sorted out if the interpretation is what I’d have chosen, or really whether I actually liked the performance or just appreciated it.   Maybe by the time I finish the report, I’ll have worked it out.  In any case, I might as well begin with the performances and the production and get to themes and the interpretation when I’ve had some time to cogitate.

I’ll start with the set, because it was a striking evocation of Kulick and designer Paul Steinberg’s notion of what Brecht was on about in A Man’s a Man.  CSC has a relatively small stage area, a thrust configuration that’s pretty much a large square.  For Man, the floor was essentially bare—no constructed scenery on stage—with the fly space festooned with bright green palm fronds evoking the tropics.  (Kilkoa, the setting of Man, is an imaginary place, so its geographic location is wherever Brecht and the director want it to be.)  The back wall of the acting area incorporated a large metal garage-like door that served various purposes and could be obscured by sliding panels painted with motifs suggesting various locations during the play; there was a smaller wooden door to stage right of the big one.  The most salient element of the design were the orange-painted oil barrels stacked seemingly haphazardly around the stage at the pre-set, suggesting huge palm tree trunks.  (The color, designer Steinberg explained, “is meant to be slightly vulgar and intense.”) The barrels were moved, restacked, and transformed by suggestion and imagination into many disparate objects all during the performance.  Steinberg explained that the barrels came from a reference in the play to the coming war.  The soldiers don’t know who the enemy will be or where they’ll be fighting, and point out that if it’s about cotton, they’ll be fighting in Tibet and if it’s about oil, the fight will be in Pamir (a region of Afghanistan).  Steinberg said, “To me there’s no more potent symbol in today’s world than oil as a force for wars.  And so that’s where those things come from.”  (The war in Man is in Tibet in the end, so Steinberg’s allusion is demonstrably a contemporary reference to our recent wars in Iraq and Kuwait and our conflicts with Iran to keep the Persian Gulf open to oil shipping.)  The barrels are the packages Galy Gay carries as a porter, the “leather box” in which Jeraiah Jip hides when he’s left behind at the temple, Begbick’s beer wagon, the “elephant” Gay is hoodwinked into selling illegally, the train cars in which the soldiers ride to war, and so on.  They became an emblematic image for the production.

The costumes, by Gabriel Berry, were mostly World War I-era British army field uniforms, with the four machine gunners wearing the familiar pie-plate helmet.  (Bloody Five wore a dress uniform with Sam Browne belt and a peaked cap.)  The widow wore a patterned ’20s drop-waisted dress.  The overall effect was to reinforce the period without commenting on it or the styles overtly.  Justin Townsend’s lighting, essentially bright and white as if the sun were shining at its height all the time, was in a similarly straightforward vein.

While Bentley endeavored to make his Brecht translations idiomatically American, Nellhaus didn’t, retaining the faux-British feeling Brecht seems to have intended.  (I’ve read some Brecht in the original German, but not Mann ist Mann, so I’m extrapolating here.  Nellhaus’s rendition of the play for the Living’s 1962 staging was authorized by the Brecht heirs; I know nothing about the CSC version, but the endorsement suggests he hewed close to Brecht’s use of language.)  Given the fantasy depiction of the British Raj (besides the fact that Kilkoa doesn’t exist, Brecht gave England a queen in 1925), Nellhaus’s approach seems apt (as long as the actors can handle the alien speech, which the CSC cast did) and also in line with Brecht’s famous striving for unfamiliar stage life to remind us that this is a show, a demonstration, not reality.  To that effect, Brecht inserted songs into the script, another non-realistic technique to accomplish his intention that we pay attention to his points and not be drawn into an empathetic relationship with the characters.  The lyrics of CSC’s A Man’s a Man, of course, were Nellhaus’s renditions of Brecht’s verse—Brecht was also a poet as well as a playwright—but the music for the production was new, composed by Duncan Sheik, composer for Spring Awakening (Off-Broadway, Broadway, 2006-09) and the recent London production of American Psycho (2013-14).  Maybe I’m too hung up on Kurt Weill, but I found the new score too lyrical, too tuneful for Brecht and A Man’s a Man.  In contrast to, say, Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, in which the pretty music (by Richard Peaslee) clashed with the brutal imagery of the words, there was no conflict in Sheik’s compositions.  Brecht’s lyrics were inspired by troop songs (via Rudyard Kipling), but there wasn’t much martial in Sheik’s music, which subverts the disorienting function of the songs.  Remember, Brecht wasn’t about entertainment and appeasing an audience: “I’m not writing for the scum who want to have the cockles of their hearts warmed,” he declared in that 1926 interview. 

The performances were generally fine, though perhaps a little too much in the realistic vein.  I didn’t see Kulick’s previous Brecht work at CSC, The Caucasian Chalk Circle (2013) and Galileo (2012), so I don’t know if A Man’s a Man is typical of his approach to the writer, but style wasn’t a main element in this production.  If anything, Kulick subdued stylistic aspects of the production in almost every department except the set design.  (It may be significant that Steinberg’s principal field of design is opera, often a showier medium.  In his interview, the designer remarked that “in any musical theatre, the design is often a bridge between the abstraction of music and the literal quality of the words.  It has a different place in the structure.  But for a play it’s a more one-to-one dialogue with words.”)  I can’t say that Kulick’s approach didn’t work for me, but it wasn’t as starkly interesting and provocative as I expect from Brecht; on the other hand, it didn’t iron out all the Brechtian quirkiness, a tactic that turns his plays into mush.  So I guess I was left with neither fish nor fowl—but at least I didn’t get pabulum.  In the worlds of theater and Brecht, that counts as a win.  (It also comes close to damning with faint praise, and I regret that.  If the play were still running, I might have rephrased that statement.)

The central performances were all a little problematical, but not immensely off base.  As Galy Gay, Gibson Frazier was a little more a nebbish than I think he ought to be; Charles Isherwood of the New York Times dubbed him “boyish but rather anonymous.”  I don’t mean the character, who is, as he says, a “nobody,” but as a stage presence.  Frazier, however much he may wish otherwise, was following in the footsteps of the likes of Peter Lorre, whose 1931 performance raised a critical howl which Brecht felt compelled to answer in print; Joe Chaikin, who won an Obie for the portrayal in 1962; and even Bill Murray, who did the role in a 1986 staging in Hyde Park, New York.  But Frazier barely stood out from the ensemble, and “the peculiar oddity of ‘A Man’s a Man,’” wrote Isherwood, “is that it’s hard to lament the disappearance of Galy Gay, because there was never anything much there to disappear.”  We’re not supposed to empathize with Gay, according to Brecht’s theatrical philosophy, but we are supposed to take notice. 

As the Widow Begbick, Justin Vivian Bond brought the fresh (I think) element of drag impersonation to the role.  (I learned of a production in Los Angeles in which Galy Gay was played by a woman, but I never read of a man appearing as Begbick before.)  Previous Begbicks have been Helene Weigel, Brecht’s wife; Judith Malina in the Living’s version; Olympia Dukakis, winner of the 1962 Obie for her portrayal in the competing production; and Stockard Channing in 1986 opposite Bill Murray.  Formerly Kiki of the comic musical duet Kiki and Herb (1990s-2000s), Bond is certainly statuesque.  (Bond seemed taller than all the men in the cast, particularly 5’ 9” Stephen Spinella’s Bloody Five.)  But I kept feeling that v was in a different play from everyone else, almost doing a solo act in the middle of A Man’s a Man.  (As a transgender person, Bond insists on not identifying with either sex and prefers to use v as the suitable pronoun, so I will oblige.)  I can’t put my finger precisely on what was disconnecting, but it had to do with v’s energy and “presence,” if that makes any sense.  Joe Dziemianowicz in the New York  Daily News said, “Bond’s acting is one-note,” and despite her flapper garb, Bond’s Begbick was from a different time and place somehow.  (Bond’s program credits list few traditional plays and I wonder how much work v’s done with a cast and a script.  V was a little like some of those old-time movie actors who just did their own thing, irrespective of what anyone else on the screen was doing.)  Because this was Brecht, however, it wasn’t as damaging as it might have been had the play been a Shaw, say, or a Shakespeare, and Bond’s smoky, dark voice was appropriately Brechtian to my ear, even if the songs v sang rang a little too lilting. 

In the late 1950s, a translator-playwright was contemplating a rendition of Mann ist Mann in New York City.  The actor to whom the English script was to be offered was Marlon Brando “because of the ‘wonderful role’ in it for him.”  I assume the offer would have been for Galy Gay, but Brando probably would have been more credibly cast as Bloody Five.  In that light, Stephen Spinella was an odd choice for the fearsome military veteran and the actor’s slight build emphasized this.  Despite the abundant facial hair the actor sported, he seemed like a boy dressed up in his father’s uniform—or perhaps an old granddad in his former regalia.  Again, this being Brecht, such a disconnect might have been appropriate had I not felt that Spinella was the slightest bit uncomfortable in the role.  Watching him, I couldn’t help wondering what a bigger man would be like as he dissolved into jelly.

The other soldiers—Jason Babinsky as Polly Baker, Steven Skybell as Jesse Mahoney, Martin Moran as Uriah Shelley, and Andrew Weems (who replaced an injured Bill Buell in January) as Jeraiah Jip—as well as Ching Valdes-Aran as Mr. Wang, the temple priest, were all fine.  (Allan K. Washington played all the other characters, including Mrs. Galy Gay.)  Nothing really stood out in the ensemble, but it all worked well.  (Interestingly, as if to balance the transgender Bond’s playing Widow Begbick, Valdes-Aran, a female actor, was billed as Mr. Wang, though the role as presented by the actor and Kulick is essentially gender-neutral—and gender-irrelevant.  Wang’s costume, a tunic and turban, looking like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, was probably modeled on male garb, but to a Westerner, it was ambiguous.) 

I’m still struggling with Kulick’s interpretation.  Mann ist Mann predates Brecht’s famous theater theories, including Epic Theater and the so-called Alienation Effect, but he did insert rudimentary versions of them into the stage work when he directed the revised play in 1931.  Today, of course, most theater people will find the seeds of the playwright’s ideas in the script and bring them to the fore, at least in each director’s vision of them.  Since, as I acknowledged, I haven’t seen Kulick’s earlier Brecht presentations, I don’t know if he has a consistent Brechtian viewpoint or not, but on the basis of A Man’s a Man, I’d say he soft-pedals the starker aspects of Brecht’s theories.  Hence, I imagine, the semi-realistic performance style and the wholly realistic costuming.  Perhaps it was also the rationale for the lyrical musical style in which Duncan Sheik composed, influenced (as it should have been) by the director’s vision.  (Paul Steinberg’s scenography, as I said, was a different matter.)  I’d also say that Kulick emphasized the comedy over the more barbed political and polemical points Brecht was making—though it’s hard to roll over them completely.  In the end, Kulick created an enjoyable and interesting piece of theater—but just how much Brecht was present is in question for me.  I’m unquestionably glad I saw this performance, though I’m not sure what I learned from it other than having gotten to see a version of this play on stage finally.  (Brecht has copped to making at least 10 revisions of Mann ist Mann from 1926 to his death in 1956.)

In the press, Newsman Dziemianowicz reported, “The first half delivers a clean, smooth, energetic ride and buckles you in tight. . . .  But the second act is shaggy, inert, less musical and loses its grip,” due in part to “sluggish pacing.”  “Overall,” he wrote however, “performances click.”  In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli opened her review with: “There’s a reason we don’t see Brecht’s ‘A Man’s a Man’ very often: It’s not all that good.  To come alive, it needs a brilliant production – and this clunky Classic Stage Company revival isn’t it.”  Commenting on the accident that sidelined an original cast member, the Postwoman complained, “Sadly, that was far more exciting than what unfolds onstage,” but added that Sheik’s music was “quite pleasant, especially in the hands of Justin Vivian Bond.”  Singling out Bond and Spinella for praise, Vincentelli wrote that “the rest of the ensemble is dull” and “the action is both sluggish and incoherent.”  The reviewer closed with a quip: “When one of the soldiers . . . wonders out loud, ‘What is happening here?,’ the widow turns to the audience and shrugs comically, as if to say, ‘Beats me.’  You and me both, Begbick.” 

The New York Times writer Charles Isherwood called CSC’s A Man’s a Man “this hard-working but uninvolving production [that] moves with the lumbering tread of a pachyderm in no hurry to get to the watering hole,” although he allowed that this wasn’t necessarily Kulick’s fault, or that of the cast, “who embody their cartoonish characters with energy and verve.”  Said the Timesman, “All do their best to lift Brecht’s meandering parable about the dehumanizing nature of military life (or maybe modern life) to . . . playful heights.”  Brecht’s play, Isherwood observed, “lacks the cogency and tangy theatrical vitality of his later, better-known works” and “galumphs along awkwardly and with only modestly funny satirical flourishes, leaving us to grind our teeth as we wait for Brecht’s ideas to heave oh so slowly into view.”  Composer Sheik, the Times reviewer reported, “provides polished and haunting work” and, as Begbick, “Bond gives a cheerfully louche, funny performance”; Spinella, “almost unrecognizable underneath a fierce outcropping of military facial hair,” Isherwood wrote, “gives a sharply funny portrait of the savage Bloody Five.”  In the end, he asked, “Does any of this sound riotously funny?  Yes, well, I’m afraid it isn’t.”  As Isherwood pointed out, “Brecht was never exactly renowned for the lightness of his touch, and despite the cast’s cheerily unearnest efforts, much of the comedy comes across in rather heavy quotation marks.”  In am New York, Matt Windman, calling the CSC revival an “intimate production,” felt that the company “may have overreached in bringing back ‘A Man’s a Man’” in a performance that “comes off as slow, disjointed and altogether uninteresting” and “is otherwise a dull affair” because “the humor fails to land.”  Newsday’s Linda Winer averred that CSC had “mounted a tedious production that annoys in the noisy, look-at-me manner of bad children's theater.”  Winer added, “Sweet/bitter harmonies and oompa rhythms by Duncan Sheik (‘Spring Awakening’) offer little compensation.”

Brendan Lemon of the Financial Times capsulized his experience of A Man’s a Man by writing, “I regret to say that I was neither much amused nor touched.”  His disappointment, he said, “has something to do with the casting”: “none of [the ensemble] is able to summon and sustain the odd-comic tone that Brecht’s near-vaudeville project requires.”  The cast, Lemon lamented, is “not helped by the staging (from the usually inspired Brian Kulick), which tends to lag during the scene changes.”  CSC’s “robust new revival,” wrote Elysa Gardner in USA Today, “proves as deliciously farcical – and sobering – as ever.”  “[U]nder Brian Kulick's brisk, stinging direction,” wrote Gardner, the cast “proves both adept at broad humor and capable of stunning us into thoughtfulness.”  In the end, the review-writer concluded that “however bizarre or surreal the journey, A Man's a Man will leave you shaken, and invigorated.” 

In the Village Voice, Alexis Soloski called Kulick’s A Man’s a Man “long, loud, and slow” and pointed out that “[t]he script is more obvious than some of Brecht's later works.”  The New Yorker described A Man’s a Man as a play that “has the anguished, disjointed quality of a man racing to keep up with his own ideas” while the CSC production “embraces the frenzy, and, like its protagonist, gets deliriously lost within itself.” 

In his Hollywood Reporter review, Frank Scheck expressed the opinion that A Man’s a Man is “hopelessly dated even in the most expert hands” and that “[d]espite an exuberant staging . . . and the addition of some tuneful songs . . ., this determinedly cartoonish production never fully succeeds in delivering the playwright’s message . . . with sufficient bite.”  Scheck added, “The tonally uneven production is ultimately unsuccessful in making the strange proceedings sufficiently comprehensible” and even found Steinberg’s set ultimately “monotonous.”  In Time Out New York, Adam Feldman felt, “Patches of the play are messy, and some are blunt” but that the writing’s “incisive enough to draw a little blood.”  Director Kulick, said the man from TONY, brought “out the play’s vaudevillian aspects” in a “lively revival,” but Feldman admonished that “the play is no mere goof.” 

In the cyberpress, Fern Siegel of Huffington Post dubbed the Man revival a “smart production” which offered “a rare opportunity to see early Brecht deftly presented.”  On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer called the CSC production “smartly staged” with which “there's a lot that's right.”  Sommer described the cast as merely “okay,” citing drawbacks such as Frazier’s failure “to bring out this innocent abroad's Chaplinesque qualities” in Galy Gay and the fact that the other soldiers’comic antics are only fitfully funny.”  Tulis McCall of New York Theatre Guide complained that despite “the best efforts of this fine cast and excellent production values – this still feels like an evening that will never get to the end.”  In spite of “boatloads and boatloads of words that hinder rather than guide the observer,” McCall reported “we are buoyed up by work of this excellent cast.”  Calling Kulick’s staging “a disappointingly reductive production that's a little bit like being cornered at an alt-rock concert by a militantly anti-war lefty who insists ‘it's all about the oil, man,’” Zachary Stewart wrote on TheaterMania, “With the help of Sheik's dreamy, mellow, and often beautiful songs, this play set in a warzone creeps along at a sleepy pace, offering very few ‘aha’ moments.” 

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