No one can accuse the Classic Stage Company of shirking a challenge.
Last spring, the troupe mounted Bertolt Brecht’s vexing fable “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” helmed by CSC artistic director Brian Kulick with original music by Duncan Sheik (Tony Award winner for “Spring Awakening”), to mixed reviews. The wildly uneven tone and the accentuation of the audience distancing effects that were Brecht’s trademark were simply too much for many viewers. A review by Andy Humm in this newspaper dismissed the production as a “circle jerk.”
Undaunted, CSC and Sheik are back to reanimate another Brecht piece, “A Man’s a Man,” the complex 1926 farce set “somewhere in British Colonial India” that delves into themes of masculinity, identity, transformation, and the lunacy of war.
Translated by Gerhard Nellhaus, the flimsy plot revolves around a gullible, milquetoast porter named Galy Gay (perhaps meant as a pejorative) who gets dragooned into the British Army. He is tricked into usurping another man’s identity and “reassembled just like a car” into a lean and mean fighting machine.
Not that the conflicting themes or plot make much sense. Under Kulick’s guidance, this head-scratcher of a play — a pastiche of music hall comedy, Weimar-era political allegory, love story, war drama, Chinese parable — is laced with irony and meta-theatrics. The fourth wall is broken at sporadic intervals (actors flirt with audience members and make them hold props) and the tone is all over the place.
If you’re looking for an emotional arc –– or any satisfying authentic emotion for that matter –– you won’t find it here.
Sure, Brecht is known for Verfremdumseffekt, intentional alienating conceits designed to jolt the audience out of complacency. But this daffy production appears to pile on extra layers of obfuscation.
A highly accomplished ensemble works strenuously to clarify the proceedings. Gibson Frazier keenly conveys Galy Gay’s transformation from sappy, aimless dolt to bloodthirsty warrior. The excellent Stephen Spinella (“Angels in America”) imbues the tyrannical Sergeant (nicknamed “Bloody Five” for reasons that are revealed in a jarring, ghastly flashback) with generous amounts of brutality.
Another standout is Steven Skybell as Jesse, a private in Galy Gay’s machine-gun section, who delivers a moving speech about existentialism and almost makes us believe that the artificial elephant they have built out of barrels (don’t ask) is actually real.
As if this weren’t head-spinning enough, gender-bending performance artist Justin Vivian Bond (“Kiki and Herb”) plays the gruffly coquettish Widow Begbick, a beer wagon proprietress who aims to seduce Galy Gay and later the Sergeant. Bond’s raspy delivery of a ballad about love and mortality at intermission is oddly mesmerizing.
Sheik, known for his plaintive, haunting melodies, is hardly the first songmeister that comes to mind when scoring a farce. Yet he rises to the occasion, adding a fittingly goofy, rousing opening number with marching soldiers boasting about manliness and bemoaning the war. The number serves as a choppy introduction to the proceedings, even warning that the plot will be “incomprehensible.”
The garish and clunky set by Paul Steinberg, primarily consisting of large metal drums painted bright orange set against a lime green background, does the production no favors. Requiring the cast to constantly lug and reassemble the heavy elements, the set gets in the way of the piece instead of supporting it.
Random thoughts on masculinity abound. One moment, Galy Gay is told, “Only in battle does a man attain his full stature.” Later, a fellow soldier attempts to explain the play’s title, “One man is like another. A man’s a man.”
Perhaps the closing number of Act I reveals the overarching message Brecht was trying to convey: “Life on this earth is a hazardous affair.” Fair enough. This arduous revival of “A Man’s a Man” is proof positive of that.
A MAN’S A MAN | Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., btwn. Third & Fourth Aves. | Through Feb. 16; Tue.-Thurs. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $60 at Classicstage.org or 212-352-3101