Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler gets lost in the jungle at Classic Stage Company’s A Man’s A Man.
If you are looking for a warm space to escape the cold during this final stretch of bleak winter, perhaps you might find comfort in a seat at Classic Stage Company’s current production of Bertolt Brecht’s A Man’s A Man, but if you are hoping to experience anything but a confounding hodgepodge of flat dialogue and misled theatrics… I’m sorry, but you’re out of luck.
It took six years for Brecht’s inception of this farce that follows dockworker Galy Gay (anemically portrayed by Gibson Frazier) through his unorthodox ranks of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces to reach the stage. Director Brian Kulick says, “The result is a play that is awake to the currents of a new age, an age of rampant militarism and machines and what this means for a populace not quite ready for the next chapter of modernity.”
Brecht and his merry band of artisans defined “Epic Theater”—a movement that strayed from Stanislavski’s naturalism and the emotional heft of Chekov. A Man’s A Man, true to form possesses neither, but this isn’t the point of contention. The audience is keenly aware that they are watching a play as the actors break the fourth wall, thud in and out of the action and wreak havoc on Gay’s mental state.
“In this world, when a Brecht character is faced with the choice of holding onto a name or holding onto life, the only answer is life,” Kulick comments. That sounds ripe with conflict and dramatic tension, but this world of expressionism falls fatally flat.
Fellow soldiers Polly Baker (Jason Babinsky), Jesse Mahoney (Steven Skybell) and Uriah Shelley (Martin Moran) try to keep Gay on track through this identity transformation, with a little help from Widow Begbick (Justin Vivian Bond). Most known for her role in the wildly popular cabaret act Kiki and Herb, Bond is lost in Brecht’s world, as is most of the cast in spite of gallant efforts and shining moments among them. They are ill-served by Paul Steinberg’s set: 20 or so bright orange oil drums that are rolled around into various tableaus. Clearly difficult to maneuver, they offer little visual appeal and only seem to create further obstacles for the acting company who must clumsily reconfigure them.
Ultimately, the show collapses under Kulick’s direction, which fails to create an accessible world of the play for the audience to participate. And for the final elephant in the room, there is the original music by Duncan Sheik, who won two Tony Awards and a Grammy Award for Spring Awakening. Here, Sheik’s work feels like a forced puzzle piece. Case in point: Bond begins the second act by singing a cabaret song that was cut from the context of the show… yet it isn’t really cut because she is singing it. Sheik manages to offer some haunting melodic lines and rhythms that evoke the play’s Indian setting, but it will only make you crave for another Sheik musical where his body of work can be more fully cultivated.
A Man’s A Man
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Through February 16.