Galy Gay is having an identity crisis. Once a sweet, docile family man and dutiful dock worker, he suddenly finds himself among an unlikely crew of military mavericks who have christened him with a new name. Lost without his sense of self, Gay accepts the new identity of Jeraiah Jip, a lone soldier ready to battle without cause or catalyst. Since “one man is no man, ” he joins the ranks and transforms himself into a superior killing machine. And so it goes in A Man’s a Man, one of the great wartime opines from the inimitable Bertolt Brecht.
surrounded by Jesse Mahoney,
Knower and Fendig
(Photo by Scott Suchman)
One day in 1925 India, Gay embarks on a journey to bring home a fish for dinner, the next day he carouses with a military squad in a local bar, and the next he finds himself selling an imaginary elephant to a wary buyer. Eventually Gay becomes a powerful, militant force to be reckoned with, crying out for more artillery and heavier machinery on the battle front. It’s this kind of routine ballet of standard conformation that Brecht illuminates in A Man’s a Man that has the ability to raise eyebrows and break hearts. Sadly, however, Arena Stage’s production, under the direction of Hungarian actress Eniko Eszenyi, fails miserably at successfully conveying any of Brecht’s timeless political commentary.
With a dynamic adaptation from Gerhard Nellhaus, Brecht’s masterful writing is translated into silly slapstick and Benny Hill-reminiscent fare. The three soldiers who convince Gay that he is their lost comrade Jip may as well engage in Larry, Curly and Moe antics rather than try to make sense of their screwy plot to bring on Gay as a man of militia. And in the decadent veins of “Cabaret, ” there is the omnipresent, eerily observant narrator (Valerie Leonardwho strings the story together.
Although Arena’s version focuses on an impending war and unamusing toilet humor, the script claims to reveal “the naked truth ” about the dehumanization of soldiers preparing for combat. In a story intended to be more about human identity and self-sacrifice than global wartime politics (“Wherever you find a man who has forgotten who he is, it is me, ” laments Gay), Eszenyi adds weird characterizations and extremely physical performances executed with strange imprecision.
Certainly there are a few creative touches here and there, but the source of tension in Eszenyi’s production comes from the lack of layers in her cast. There is not an ounce of charm or remote likeability among the characters, with the exception of a short-lived, emotional contribution from Jane Beard. Zachary Knower could be a fair actor, but you would never know it from his bland, boring interpretation as Gay. And the three British soldiers — Michael Hogan, James Ludwig, and David Fendig — seem stifled. Only Leonard, as the thread that binds the show together, is intoxicating as a seedy, greedy widow who frequently (and fortunately) steals scenes at the expense of — well, no one to be sure.
For a play with such enormous potential and such relevant material, it’s a tragedy that A Man’s a Man plays out like a bad day at the circus. You walk away feeling sorry for all of the animals involved.