Yesirreeee, A Man IS a Man. And there’s not a thing that we can do about it. He is bored and hungry and has very, very bad manners. Like a large cat that has been caged too long, Don’t put your hand in the cage, no matter how cute that animal looks. You will be missing a digit or five in short order. Part of what makes men not so very good is their devotion to war. The camaraderie. The game of it. The uniforms and guns and toys. The loose women. The whole shebang. As we left the theatre, I said to my chum, “I guess it is fair to say that Brecht didn’t like war.” “Yes” she said, “but we KNEW that already.”
Righhhhhhttttt. Maybe that’s why this play felt so long. In spite of the best efforts of this fine cast and excellent production values – this still feels like an evening that will never get to the end.
The location is India way back when it belonged to England. Galy Gay (you have to love Brecht’s naming skills) played expertly by the recent replacement Gibson Frazier is a porter off to get a bit of fish for dinner. His life is simple and his needs minimal. His path, however, is unfortunate. He runs across three soldiers who are looking for a fourth. Sort of like Bridge, soldiers move in fours. These three Jesse Mahoney (Steven Skybell), Polly Baker (Jason Babinsk) Uriah Shelley (Martin Moran) and were recently up to no good. They, plus the missing fourth, Jeraiah Jip (Andrew Weems) were looking to steal treasure from a local temple when Jib got himself caught by the hair, and in order to free him his comrades had to separate Jib from his hair. This resulted in a bald spot that would identify Jib as the robber in question. His friends desert him in a heartbeat, steal his paybook, (You can replace a man anytime, but a paybook is sacred if anything is) which is proof of his identity and go looking for a fourth who they can trust.
The discovery of Galy Gay satisfies their needs. All they have to do is convince him to help them at roll call, and a bit later on to BECOME Jib. This seems perfectly logical to them because hey, what is more important than saving your own ass. Along this merry path they enlist the help of Mrs. Leokadia Begbick (Justin Viand Bond – Kiki of Kiki and Herb) who runs the local beer wagon in the camp. She is a feckless creature, depending on the kindness of strangers. Any stranger will do, whether it is the sneering loathsome commandant Bloody Five (Stephen Spinella) or one of the quartet of comrades. Widow Begbick is there to take advantage of the war coffers and live life in a tiny spotlight. As a matter of fact one of the best lighting tricks I have ever seen features Widow Begbick in a second act prelude singing a “Song that got cut from the second act.” The lights chill the entire room and literally pull the color out of the place. We are, all of us, featured in black and white. After a few bars the overhead spot focused on Mrs. B. morphs, and she is slowly bathed in ripe radiant color as though a cartoon artist had reached in and slathered her with magic. Brilliant!!!
As the plot plods on, the original trio realizes that there are still a few hurdles to conquer in order for the transformation from Galy to Jib to stick. They conspire with Widow B to fake the sale of an elephant (illegal in those parts) from Jib/Galy to Mrs. B that will result in his arrest. It does. He is sentenced to execution. The event so frightens Galy that he faints and wakes convinced that Galy Gay is dead and he, Jib, is alive. There can of course be no other explanation – right? His new comrades convince him that he has to give the eulogy which, you should pardon the expression, puts a nail in the coffin. Galy is gone and Jib has risen. Off they go to smite the foe with Jib not only able but in the lead. He has indeed been transformed into not only a soldier, but a fighting machine.
The premise is clear but Brecht’s chosen path is fraught with peril in the form of boatloads and boatloads of words that hinder rather than guide the observer. It is clear from the beginning where we are going but as the evening progresses there rises the unasked question, “Are we there yet?” Sadly “there” is not to be had for too long a time. Thankfully we are buoyed up by work of this excellent cast. There is not a dud in the bunch. Seriously excellent work.
The only question remaining then is why, once again, is CSC presenting a production that is directed to the center section of this audience. I pity the people on the right and left sides of the stage who watched profiles and butts most of the night. This is not the only theatre in town to do this (The Irish Rep and the Public Theatre – Ahmanson are the two that come to mind), but it is mystifying to see this choice repeated over and over again. Next time I will request a seat over on the side so I can write about what I didn’t see.
A Man’s A Man
By Bertolt Brecht; translated by Gerhard Nellhaus; directed by Brian Kulick
WITH: Jason Babinsky (Polly Baker), Justin Vivian Bond (Widow Begbick), Gibson Frazier (Galy Gay), Martin Moran (Uriah Shelley), Steven Skybell (Jesse Mahoney), Stephen Spinella (Bloody Five), Ching Valdes-Aran (Mr. Wang), Allan K. Washington (Mrs. Galy Gay/Sacristan/Soldier) and Andrew Weems (Jeraiah Jip).
Music by Duncan Sheik; sets by Paul Steinberg; costumes by Gabriel Berry; lighting by Justin Townsend; sound by Matt Kraus; music supervisor, Stewart Kramer; wig design by Cookie Jordan; production stage manager, Samantha Watson; managing director, Jeff Griffin; production manager, Adrian White. Presented by Classic Stage Company, Mr. Kulick, artistic director; Greg Reiner, executive director. At the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, East Village, 212-352-3101, classicstage.org. Through Feb. 16. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.