The reappearance of Bertolt Brecht on a local stage (in any incarnation other than the Three Penny Opera) is so rare as to be startling. Perhaps the wave of belligerent patriotism that arose like a tsunami in reaction to 9/11 has, through some arcane law of psycho-dynamics, called up a counter force of skeptical pacifism.
Man Is Man, currently on the boards in a spirited and engaging production at the A.R.K., dates from the mid 1920s. Brecht had not yet formally joined the Communist Party, but he was certainly well on his way to being "born again" in the Marxist faith.
The play is a fable. It pulses with the vigor and freedom that makes Brecht's theater so appealing. But it's a bizarre, confused fable -- infected, perhaps, with a virus of Weimar decadence.
The mood at the ragtag A.R.K. is perfect -- more perfect, I suspect, than any of Brecht's own productions in which his signature grittiness was generated in some very well-heeled, prestigious establishments. Off to one side of the stage, at an upright piano sits Daniel Kahn, in army khakis. Kahn, who wrote the music and co-directed the play (with Sarah Clifford), also acts as MC in the persona of Sgt. Solly Schmidt of His Majesty George the Second's India Corps. Sitting on and around the piano are assorted camp followers who make up the band. Kahn's music is appealing and evocative, as is the deliberately rinky-dink set with its scarlet curtain, bare light bulb and stretched sheet for projected titles.
Galy Gay (Adam Haver) is the hero of the tale. He is an innocuous riverfront porter in Kilkoa -- a man whose major virtue is that he has "very few vices." One day, he sets out to buy a fish for supper, leaving his wife (Brother Clit, according the playbill) heating up a pot of water to cook it in. Meanwhile, an army machine-gun unit (Michael Tuttle, Arthur Fisher, Christopher Blum, Brian Spitzfaden and Keith Massey) set about looting a native shrine, the Pagoda of the Crimson God (what pagodas are doing in India is unclear). They are repulsed, and as they flee, one of their number -- Jeriah Jip, by name -- leaves a large swatch of his hair behind on the pagoda gate. Jip, a drunkard, is deposited in a large basket and left there unconscious.
The commanding officer (an amusingly explosive Kevin Fricke) is a hell-for-leather sex maniac and sanguinary martinet given the sobriquet "Bloody Five" in honor of his most heroic exploit: the murder of five enemy prisoners. Bloody Five will wreak horrible retribution on the looters if he can find them, and he knows one of the looters must have a newly acquired bald spot.
The machine gunners meet Galy Gay and, realizing he is incapable of saying "no," bully him into taking the place of the missing Jeriah Jip. During the rest of the play, Galy Gay gradually becomes convinced he is the man he's been impersonating. Meanwhile, the enterprising widow Begbick (a radiant Claudia Baumgarten) and her daughters (Sienna, Jessie and Anikka Lachman) keep the troops entertained. There is a long episode about a fraudulent elephant (Brian Spitzfaden and Keith Massey in costume) and Bloody Five, in a fit of morbid self doubt, castrates himself.
What is one to make of it all? Well, one of the straw men that Brecht is obviously taking his agit-prop ax to is the idea of human nature. General concepts of this sort are anathema to a Marxist. Man is not Man -- he is what society makes him. In this case, a nice porter transmogrifies into an aggressive warrior. The trouble, for me, is that the transmogrification is so broadly portrayed as to be senseless, unless we are to take it that we are all Galy Gays, pursuing our own little goals, but so utterly lacking in inner direction that we can be molded at will into a contrary personality. Even if this is the point, the fable remains confusing. And the long, elaborate fictional transformation tells us precious little about the kinds of real transformations that endanger us.
In any case, it's not the message, but the massage that makes the evening work. Brecht's attitude to the theater was new and refreshing. It retains a brash, defiant joy. You don't have to understand the point of the show to enjoy the show. The mood is strong and distinctive; the music is buoyant; and the performances winning.
I can't say as much for a coda to the play called The Elephant Calf, which was like the Chinese water torture. Man Is Man is a rousing bit of Brechtiana. Enjoy it, applaud, then run for the exit.
- Galy Gay (Adam Haver) hashes things out with the elephant (Brian Spitzfaden and Keith Massey) in Man Is Man.