Tuesday, December 11, 2007

PLAY: "Man is Man"

The problem I have with The Elephant Brigade's production of Brecht's Man is Man is that the youth of the company stands in the way of them realizing "epic theater." All the elements of success are there -- the set is created by actors filming miniature sets, songs are delivered by an off-kilter Lauren Blumenfeld, the fourth wall is completely broken, and Dutch director Paul Binnerts is somewhat of an expert on Brecht. However, in this setting, the ideas are trivialized by the amateurish production brought about by these (intentionally) alienating college students, and more so by the technical difficulties that draw more attention to the aesthetic than the raw ideas. In other words, it's very clear that we're watching a play, but it often seems like we're watching a very bad play.

But it would not do to be so dismissive -- while Justin Lauro might bring too much melodrama to the role of "Bloody Five," he is balanced by the superb lead performance of Natalie Kuhn, who plays Galy Gay. The gender reversal already serves as a reminder of theatrical conventions, but Kuhn turns her plaintive statements into a simpleton's observations, and manages to balance her audience-directed summaries along with her puzzled rapport with the company. Gay is not a real person -- which is the point of the play -- simply a collection of ideas and statements that are malleable and easily bought, and Kuhn's easygoing attitude (and presence as both character and actor) make her transformation into the equally unreal Jeraiah Jip easier to understand. "One man is just like another," especially when that man's a woman simply acting out the sum of her parts.

At the same time, I don't seek to justify the flaws of this production: the aesthetics are often so abstruse that they draw our attention away from the thematic points so broadly proclaimed in the script. What to make of Jip's temporary transformation into a religious icon, or Bloody Five's return to a civilian status, or even of the Widow Begbick's (Sarah Wood) commercial ups and downs, the way in which she swings on a dime so as to always be the one making out well. The play doesn't seem to gel into an assertive form until late in the second act, when Gay stands trial for attempting to sell an elephant (which is just another embedded layer of artifice).

Ultimately, Man is Man is one of Brecht's more difficult plays (not as straightforward as Galileo, not as focused as Saint Joan), and this adaptation makes it more difficult to follow. The actors end up seeing like caricatures of their own post-college lives, who are then playing other characters within that, a point that is stressed by all the toys on stage, be they models, tin soldiers, remote-control tanks, &c. For this reason, Galy Gay's eventual "death" is all the more unsettling, but the play itself remains resolutely bland.

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