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There’s a reason that Bertolt Brecht’s works, especially his more obscure ones, are rarely staged today despite their intellectual and philosophical fecundity. His brand of epic, agitprop theater inevitably comes across as hopelessly dated even in the most expert hands. Such is the case with the Classic Stage Company’s revival of his rarely performed 1926 work A Man’s a Man. Despite an exuberant staging by director Brian Kulick and the addition of some tuneful songs by pop songwriter Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening), this determinedly cartoonish production never fully succeeds in delivering the playwright’s message about man’s inherent mutability with sufficient bite.
The play is set in Kipling-era British colonial India, where a squad of British soldiers steals a load of treasure from a Chinese temple, only to have one of their men, Jeraiah Jip (Andrew Weems), injured in the process. So they enlist a hapless local porter, Galy Gay (an effective Gibson Frazier), to impersonate him in order to fool their blustery commander, the aptly named Bloody Five (Stephen Spinella). In the process, the heretofore innocent Galy is transformed into a vengeful fighting machine even more venal and corrupt than those around him.
Also figuring prominently in the action is the sex and money-obsessed canteen owner Widow Begbick, a character who would later reappear in the Brecht/Weill opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and who bears no small resemblance to the playwright’s Mother Courage.
In true Brechtian style, the performers frequently break character to engage with the audience, warning us at one point that “the plot is incomprehensible” — no lie there — and introducing one musical number by advising us that we’re about to hear “a song that does absolutely nothing to advance our plot.”
The actors, several of them playing female roles, perform their broadly drawn roles with suitable gusto, especially Justin Vivian Bond, better known as the distaff half of the mock cabaret duo Kiki and Herb. Allowed the opportunity to sing several numbers, including a solo at the beginning of Act 2, Bond delivers a broadly entertaining turn that is the highlight of the production.
The tonally uneven production is ultimately unsuccessful in making the strange proceedings sufficiently comprehensible, while Paul Steinberg’s jungle green-colored, abstract set, dominated by large industrial barrels painted bright orange, is initially striking but quickly proves monotonous.
Fortunately, there’s the engaging music by Sheik, who performed similar chores for the company’s previous revival of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. His rousing melody for the title tune which kicks off the evening is good enough to make one wish that the work had been entirely transformed into a musical.
Venue: Classic Stage Company, New York (runs through Feb. 16)
Cast: Jason Babinsky, Steven Skybell, Andrew Weems, Martin Moran, Allan K. Washington, Stephen Spinella, Ching Valdes-Aran, Justin Vivian Bond, Gibson Frazier
Director: Brian Kulick
Playwright: Bertolt Brecht
Translator: Gerhard Nellhaus
Music: Duncan Sheik
Set designer: Paul Steinberg
Costume designer: Gabriel Berry
Lighting designer: Justin Townsend
Sound designer: Matt Krauss
Presented by the Classic Stage Company