A bad play's a bad play

Feb. 11, 2004, midnight | By Josh Gottlieb-Miller | 20 years, 4 months ago

Bad Brecht

I hope its true, what one audience member said before the second act of Bertolt Brecht's A Man's a Man: That horrible plays make you appreciate good ones. I had a lot of time to mull this over, as the interminable second act went on and on. Unfortunately, I had to write this review; otherwise I would have just left at intermission. The show didn't get better, either.

The biggest disappointment about A Man's a Man isn't that it's a bad play. Indeed, its lack of quality might be highly intentional, it seems Brecht's thin satire is an attempt at deconstructing theater and producing truth rather than art. As such, A Man's a Man is full of strangely off-kilter dialogue, intentionally awkward narrative breaks, a fair bit of violence and enough purposefully gratuitous sexual imagery to make sex seem banal and overdone. Speaking of overdone, Brecht's tale of a regular dockworker's transformation into an entirely different military identity (circa a fictionally British army stationed outside Kilkoa, 1925) is nothing if not that and very contrived.

It's almost as if Brecht is intending his highly juvenile humor and simplistic plot devices to be so primitive that they resemble humanity's most base nature. This way, Brecht is trying to be truly sophisticated and adult. A Man's a Man fails at this entirely, though. Instead, the audience is stuck with bad feces jokes and girls straddling canons. Even the title A Man's a Man is typically, blatantly obvious. What did you think a man was, anyway, Brecht?

I don't mean to fault Arena, really. Director Eniko Eszenyi's staging is properly physical and somewhat amusing if painfully slowly paced and her actors' awkward rhythms fit Brecht's intentions just right. The script just gives them nothing to work with, save for the occasional good line, made unimportant by its lack of context and its relative meaninglessness. The largely abstract play has no emotional punch, and the only scenes that do (admittedly powerful denunciations of identity or individuality) are too infrequent and easily occurring (without second thought, afterwards) to pack real power. Indeed, the few moments of genuine emotion are positively cruel and powerful. It's surprising that Brecht chose not to employ emotional material more often, even insincerely; their relative absence from the play is a real loss.

Because it's not as if there aren't high points to A Man's a Man, most usually when Brecht stops hiding from true drama. When these dramatics occurred the audience was almost shocked, numbed as it was by the play's overt meaninglessness. Indeed, moments like the dockworker Galy Gay's (Zachary Knower) confrontation with his pregnant wife (Jane Beard) is one such example, and the pain wonderfully hurt Beard exhibits is deeply chilling.

Indeed, the acting is uniformly strong, if not spectacular: Knower is wonderfully earnest, at least before his character is hijacked by the play's convoluted plot and he's unconvincingly transformed. In a strong supporting role, Tim Artz is boldly murderous as the chilling Sergeant Fairchild (alias Bloody Five). Most importantly though, Valerie Leonard is commanding in her dual roles as Leocadia Begbick and when the scene freezes, the narrator. In a fairly challenging (for the potentially demeaning sexual stunts alone) and omnipresent role, Leonard remains energetic and likable, which is a doubly hard feat when she is managing such an ugly character.

To be true, Brecht did not fail completely. Deconstructing theater is a noble effort, an admirable concept for obvious art, that is subtle in its meaning. Brecht's sharp sense of humor occasionally shines through: When Gay wakes up next to Begbick on a crowded troop transport, unaware of how she got there, he assumes the best. "Isn't it funny? Almost indecent, isn't it? But a man's a man, you know. He isn't entirely his own master," Gay remarks, perfectly ironically.

The music is also strong (Brecht's lyrics are very clever), and when any of Brecht's characters break into song the moment feels strangely human, whereas in most musicals the characters have a uniform number of opportunities to sing that seem manufactured. Musicians David Maddox and Dwayne Nitz are nicely involved in the play, too. Maddox especially, having composed several interesting melodies for the show. Lighting Designer Nancy Schertler's work is a good fit for Brecht, full of dark pauses and unseemly pools of light.

A Man's a Man is an entirely flawed experiment, but that won't stop some audience members from appreciating its intent. Brecht struggles well with some modern concepts like truth, identity, war, sex, violence and humanity. All of them would be relevant if not for his outsized dependence on portraying the evil of capitalism (communism is no alternative, we know now). Perhaps it's just out of place, then. Maybe a man's not a man, anymore, but whatever he wants to be. Maybe we like the freedom capital allows, and identity and truth can be commodities that we enjoy trading on. Does it even matter if a man's still a man?

A Man's a Man is playing in the Fichandler at http://www.arena-stage.com/a-mans-a-man_crowns.shtml through March 7. Tickets cost between $42 and $60, however, people aged 5 through 25 can buy a limited number of $10 tickets until 5:25 the day of the performance.

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