Justin Vivian Bond as the Widow Begbik sings a lament over the not really deceased but increasingly dead to himself Galy Gay (Gibson Frazier) in Classic Stage Company’s production of Betholt Brecht’s very Brechtian A Man’s A Man.
Stated simply, the title of Bertholt Brecht’s A Man’s A Man might sound like a modest boast of every man’s intrinsic worth, as it is in Robert Burns’ poem A Man’s A Man For A’ That. But the original German title is Mann ist Mann which can be translated as Man equals man and with that in mind it might be better to hear 'A Man’s A Man" as part of a sarcastic dismissal of a man’s individual worth.
What does it matter who does the job? Him or you. A man’s a man, and one’s as good as another, a point Classic Stage Company’s roisterous, often rowdy production of one of Brecht’s earliest plays makes forcefully and persuasively with much fun and ingenuity in the first thirty minutes and then goes on making and making again with increasing ingenuity but with less persuasiveness and more gritted-teeth determination to have fun as it follows a script in which the young Brecht establishes his too Brechtian habit of repeating himself exhaustingly while growing more and more didactic with each iteration.
After a short while, all the enjoyment here is in the many ways director Brian Kulick , his production team, and his talented and exuberant cast have come up with to distract us from Brecht being Brecht.
Thematically, A Man’s A Man is about the mutability of identity and how society treats one human being as interchangeable with any other.
Theatrically, the best thing about the Classic Stage Company’s production of A Man’s A Man is its one central female character as played by the remarkable Justin Vivian Bond.
Bond delivers a sultry, sensuous performance as the Widow Begbik, a canteen serving soldiers of the British Army in a place that’s not exactly India---A colony’s a colony---in the days of the Raj, who claims to have had her identity, reputation, and true life story rewritten by the ungrateful and exploitive men who have passed through her canteen and come and gone from her bed. She implies that who and what she appears to be is a surrender. She’s given in to her imposed identity and become what people say she is.
But Bond brings her so vividly and sympathetically to life that she seems to refute herself.
If this is a self written and foisted upon the Widow Begbik by others, she’s made it her own the way fine actors like…well, like Bond can make a character a thousand others have played uniquely their own.
The same can’t be said of Galy Gay, the man who is a man of the title, just not the man he thinks he is. Galy, a good-natured, obliging, and not particularly bright dockworker, is as rewritable, revisable, and cut and paste-able as an image in PhotoShop. What’s done to him in the course of the play is almost the theatrical equivalent of what gets done to Daffy Duck in the Looney Tunes classic Duck Amuck in which Daffy finds himself trapped on a drawing board at the mercy of a maliciously mischievous animator who turns out to be Bugs Bunny in full “Ain’t I a stinker?” mode. Galy is redrawn in different guises over and over again to the point where he can’t recognize himself or even remember himself anymore.
The plot of A Man’s A Man is, we’re warned right up top by the whole cast shouting in unison, “Incomprehensible!” It’s not, really. It’s that Brecht isn’t much interested in developing it. It’s like all his plots, the rails on which the train carrying the jokes, songs, lectures, and occasionally fully-realized scenes runs.
On his way to buy a fish for his wife to cook for dinner, Galy Gay is intercepted by three soldiers who introduce themselves as his new best friends, ply him with beer and cigars, and convince him to do them a small favor.
Could he put on a uniform and pretend to be a missing member of their squad at roll call this evening? Nothing to it, really. Just blend in among the rank and file and shout Present when they call our missing mate’s name? There’s a sergeant who has it in for us and if you help us fool him like this you’ll save us all a world of trouble.
Friend’s name is Jip. Jeraiah Jip. When you hear it, just call out good and loud.
What the three don’t tell Galy is that Jip isn’t so much missing as hiding. The four of them tried to rob a temple and when the robbery went awry Jip left behind a clue that could identify him as one of the would-be robbers. But more than they're concerned Jip might get caught, they’re afraid that his getting caught will lead to their getting caught.
The trouble is the suspicious sergeant is a bloodhound. The ruse has to continue past the point Galy is willing to go along with it. Then the soldiers hit on the idea that the best way to convince Galy to go pretending to be Jipp is to convince him he is Jipp.
What follows is an extended clinic on brainwashing that involves a stolen elephant, a mock court martial and execution, and Galy delivering the oration at his own funeral. Galy begins to lose track of who he is. Is he himself or somebody else or nobody else? Maybe Galy Gay was an alternative self he dreamed up. But does it matter? A man’s a man, after all.
With his lantern jaw, aquiline nose, and high noble brow and forehead, Gibson Frazier, who plays Galy, looks like he might be about ten years or so away from being typecast as a Supreme Court Justice or Roman general. But he has a close-set pair of beady dark eyes and an expressive mouth that frantically reset and reshape themselves within the handsome outlines in a desperately friendly attempt to approximate the appropriate expression to meet whatever’s being said to him and since most of what’s being said to him is absurd or insane or intended to confuse, rather than presenting a portrait of judicial sagacity or military formidableness, Frazier’s face is a constantly and fast moving montage of comic misapprehension, bafflement, existential terror, and short-circuited thought. And he has a wiry muscularity that allows him to assume in an instant whatever body-shape and posture that expresses who Galy thinks he is or ought to be at moment.
Martin Moran, Steven Skybell, and Jason Babinsky play Galy’s new friends who become the mad behavioral scientists engineering his identity swap, a charming trio of rogues and Brecht’s variations on Kipling-esque Tommy types who would turn up less conscience-impaired in the movie Gunga Din played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Victor McLaglen, and Cary Grant. Moran is the soft-spoken, smooth-talking con artist Uriah Shelley. Skybell plays the Irish bully boy Jesse Mahoney. And Babinsky is Polly Baker, the would-be charmer too self-infatuated to see he’s having the opposite effect on the ladies than the one he imagines. Babinsky gets the funniest moment of fourth wall-breaking when he swaggers up to a member of the audience and, unasked, takes her program, autographs it, and wafts it back with an obliging “There you go,” as if he’s done her a favor but of course doesn’t want her to make a big deal of it, he’s just that kind of nice guy for a star.
Andrew Weems plays the real Jeraiah Jip as a jovial and clueless sort whose own weak investment in himself as a self makes him a perfect candidate for replacing by someone, anyone else. Stephen Spinella is the suspicious sergeant whose nom de guerre is Bloody Five, a self-important poseur who begins to lose track of himself when a sexual meltdown brought on by his slavish infatuation with the Widow Begbick causes him to revert to the weakling he fears he really is and shed his identity as the very model of a modern soldier and killer.
Allan K. Washington and Ching Valdes-Aran fill out the cast and fill in around the edges in various roles, Washington most notably as Galy’s accidentally abandoned wife and Valdes-Aran as Mr Wang. A man’s a man, except when he’s not or she is.
A Man’s a Man may not be Brecht at his most didactic. But it is him at his most obvious. He wrote the play in his twenties as his farewell to expressionism and he was just working out the tropes and tricks, themes and alienationalist strategies that would become his hallmarks and signatures. A Man’s A Man is a working model of the kind of theater now known as Brechtian. It’s like one of those glass-bodied concept cars at the auto show that let you look in and marvel at the genius engineering in action.
In effect, Kulick and his actors and designers are staging a demonstration of how to stage Brecht and having a grand time doing so. This makes stars of the show out of Paul Steinberg’s colorful and dynamic set design and Justin Townsend’s evocative and transformational lighting.
Gabriel Barry’s costumes and Matt Kraus’ sound design are excellent in support.
But, as I said, the real star is Bond who makes the Widow Begbik a brilliant special effect.
A MAN'S A MAN by BERTHOLT BRECHT. Directed by BRIAN KULICK. Featuring JASON BABINSKY, JUSTIN VIVIAN BOND, GIBSON FRAZIER, MARTIN MORAN, STEVEN SKYBELL, STEPHEN SPINELLA, CHING VALDES-ARAN, ALLAN K. WASHINGTON, and ANDREW WEEMS. At Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY 10003. Through February 16. Call 212.352.3101 or visit the website for tickets.
Photos by Richard Termine, courtesy of Classic Stage Company.