Friday, August 03, 2007

PLAY: "The Brig"

Photo/John Ranard

The Brig
is closer to modern dance than theater. The rote choreography of military indoctrination lends itself toward the physical over the intellectual, and the emotion stems from movement rather than story. Grippingly tedious and jarringly tight, The Brig is an illustration in several scenes of the dismantling of a soldier's independent thought. It isn't actually a dance, but in the absence of narrative, the intimate exposure of these men, and the prolonged passage of time, it seems like one.

In actuality, The Brig is a work of hyperrealism, written by Kenneth H. Brown, based (one imagines) on his own experiences as a prisoner of his own country. His writing strips away tactics and replaces them with imperatives; his plot dulls our nerves with repetition, only to jangle them again with swift punches to the gut; his dialogue is humorless and severe. Judith Malina, who controversially directed this in 1963, meets Brown's needs with crisp and efficient staging, stark lighting, and claustrophobic passages. She also forces the cast to meet Brown's needs: not only are they never allowed to sit still, but they are actually punched (it's pulled, but still). At times, the show is less acting than reacting, which is where Brown and Malina manage best to blur the line between reality and theater.

The other successful bit of staging is The Brig's honest homage to the unique ability of the military to make chaos appear organized (and more recently, to make organization fall into chaos). As the routines build and build and the layers of individual actions shriek one atop the other, we are swept away by the callous efficiency of the dehumanizing machine. The style is that of classic comedy, with the establishment of routine and the gradual distortion of it: but in the absence of humor, it becomes a serious grotesque. And when one of the prisoners finally snaps (as he must), it is only a matter of time before a new soldier is sent in for disciplining. (It is a mark of good pacing that Brown introduces the newcomer toward the end of the second act. Rather than allowing us to ease in with him in Act I, Brown pushes us in. When the new prisoner enters, we view him with the eyes of veterans who know better than to hope for mercy.)

I'm glad to see The Brig extended, for it is not an easy piece of theater, either to perform or to watch. The play is meant to give the audience a glimpse into a single day in the brig, and this requires a certain commitment to tedium and silence. Today, people can hardly listen to the news or watch sports without witty recaps, graphical aids, and charismatic speakers. It is nice to see an audience take the time to slow down for an actual experience.

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