Theater review: The Perils of War

Bertolt Brecht’s play, “A Man’s a Man,” is not for the passive theatergoer. But then, that was Brecht’s point. The anti-militarist comedy/musical is currently at Arena Stage under the direction of renowned Hungarian director Enik Eszenyi.

Brecht is often considered to be one of the most innovative playwrights of the 20th century, dabbling in the experimental movements of the 1920s as well as creating his own. Several of his early plays were written in response to German expressionism, which he thought placed too much emphasis on the individual and the idea of heroism. Epic theater, his own creation, concentrates on the evolution of a particular character rather than the end result. He wanted to avoid the audience’s falling into a trance-like state in which it always understood a character’s actions. Brecht portrayed his characters as real and flawed, though in many ways he also bent the laws of time and space to deliver a distorted image of truth.

According to Brecht, “Mann ist Mann,” translated roughly as “A Man’s a Man” concerns the technical dismantling and reassembling of a human being into another kind for a specific purpose.” It follows a laborer named Galy Gay, “a man who can’t say ‘no,'”who is coerced into the military and eventually convinced that he is, in fact, Jeriah Jip, “a human fighting machine.” Since Brecht was alive in Nazi Germany, the play is riddled with commentary on the power that one man can place, almost arbitrarily, on another.

Eszenyi stays true to Brecht’s intention to create an “alien effect.” Songs and speeches are delivered directly to the audience, makeup and costumes are purposefully distorted, and the acting generally calls rather conspicuous attention to itself. Eszenyi plays quite successfully with Arena Stage’s theater-in-the-round set-up. For the most part, she allows Brecht’s complicated dialogue and outlandish plot to take center stage.

The play is not without Eszenyi’s own mark, however. As a scholar with experience in other Brechtian works, she is aware of the playwright’s traditional focus on sex and its importance to humanity. She uses this to turn any object, from a cucumber to a cannon, into a phallic symbol of some sort. Although not entirely necessary, these innuendos are not distracting until Widow Begbik, the play’s lead female character, is reduced to nothing more than a participant in a wet T-shirt contest in the top of Act 2. Despite the fact that this character is purposefully used, quite demonstratively, throughout the play as a sex object, her actions are not only overt but also crude.

Karl Eigsti’s set design is creative and wholly suitable for the production. It features a central elevator that plays a pivotal role in the show’s finale, as well as several trapdoors. The monochromatic set resembles a circus ring, which is commentary on the subject matter in itself, while it draws attention to the action.

Ilona Somogyi’s costume design is also unique and appropriate. The soldiers’ uniforms reflect the play’s rather inaccurate Rudyard Kipling-style view of India in 1925. The muted color shows their blind uniformity, while the style is a nod to the distorted “alien effect” that Brecht strove for. Begbik’s costumes contrast nicely with the soldiers’ tan garb; a red and purple negligee is paired with knee-high military boots to show the two extremes of her character.

Valerie Leonard’s portrayal of the controversial Begbik is right on. A combination of slapstick comedienne and cabaret performer, Begbik is both the dominator and the dominated – women’s two historic roles. Leonard’s strong presence and keen ability to portray the cynical levels of Brecht’s dialogue place her performance at the forefront of the production.

Zachary Knower plays a believable Galy Gay. He portrays the transition from docker to soldier without the traditional linear approach. Audience members constantly doubt their allegiance to him, making him the quintessential anti-hero.

Michael Hogan plays Uriah Shelley, the play’s clear allegory to Hitler. Like Knower, Hogan brilliantly plays off of the audience with his integrally ironic role. His nimble movements and commanding presence are awe-inspiring.

Much like Shakespeare, Brecht’s plays have a style unto themselves. While this is a brilliant production full of the Brechtian technique, it certainly is not for everyone, as demonstrated by those audience members seen slipping out at intermission. This is a play for the intellectual, but Brecht would not have it any other way.

“A Man’s a Man” is playing now through March 13 at the Arena Stage. For information call (202) 488-3300 or go to http://www.arenastage.org.

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