There's a reason why A Mans a Man, Bertolt Brecht's 1926 play--maybe "polemic" is more like it--isn't produced more often. In his determination to demonstrate how an individual's identity is drummed out of him in order that he (and maybe she in today's world) becomes a completely willing soldier, Brecht is too didactic by half. He goes about making his blunt point for maybe an act too long.
Brian Kulick certainly attempts to get around the inherent problems with all manner of theatrical notions in a new translation by Gerhard Nellhaus, with Duncan Sheik's music carrying Brecht's customarily acerbic lyrics as Nellhaus frames them.
On Paul Steinberg's set, Kulick aims at an immediately arresting image. As the audience enters, what's in view is a series of stacked, ribbed, orange-rust-colored barrels. Directly above each stack are other barrels amid elephant-leaf foliage. The elephant leaves, incidentally, are a sly foreshadowing of a later plot development.
Whether these stylized thick bamboo trees specifically say India doesn't matter. That's where Brecht wants patrons to think they are, all the while they know they're in the Weimar Germany that Brecht, who exits in 1933, is mocking. The couple of references to Hitler added by Kulick are acceptably anachronistic.
As the play begins, the nine uniformed cast members enter and, before singing an effective opening anthem about a man's being a man, push the stacks upstage. It's from there that the barrels are arranged and rearranged as needed throughout the action to represent different environments and objects. Not the least of the configurations is a bogus elephant (see foreshadowing elephant leaves above.) that becomes a tiresome second-act device.
The barrels will also be banged on by a hammer to represent gunshots. Curiously, the hammer represents something a bit more unfortunate: the hammering of Brecht's message as he goes about his long-winded demonstration of how one well-meaning dupe is traduced into becoming a warrior.
The woebegone fellow is Galy Gay (Gibson Frazier). When scheming enlisted men Uriah Shelley (Martin Moran), Polly Baker (Jason Babinsky) and Jesse Mahoney (Steven Skybell) lose Jeraiah Jip (Andrew Weems), their fourth comrade, they decide to convince Gay that he's Jip.
Their convoluted approach entails tricking Gay into selling the fake elephant to a confederate, Widow Begbick (Justin Vivian Bond). He's rigged to get caught in the act by officer Bloody Five (Stephen Spinella). Then he's tried in military court, executed--but not really (don't ask!)--and, when resuscitated, thrilled to be alive. More than that, he's glad to take on his new militaristic persona, as the army in which he's now a leader invades Tibet.
(If the much later German invasion of Poland comes to mind, Kulick probably wouldn't mind, although that event may not quite be something the often visionary Brecht actually saw coming.)
Anyone who's followed the plot this far deserves congratulations. Following as much in the theater is frustrating for reasons to do with Brecht's attenuated script as well as the tactics director Kulick employs to enliven things.
Yes, it's Brecht, and those who know his innovations are aware he formulated his own acting method, commonly known as, why not?, Brechtian. Actors are encouraged not so much to suggest realism or naturalism as they go about their business as to keep patrons aware they're always watching actors.
Give Kulick a sincere pat on the back for his efforts, but it's got to be reported that his touches just as often, or possibly more often, aren't so much Brechtian as vaudevillian. The effect is that where Brecht intends to be caustic, to be harsh, to lambast, vaudeville's traits are softer, cuter, more kidding than cutting.
Because they're hewing to a director's all-encompassing choice, the actors, including Allan K. Washington in three roles and Ching Valdes-Aran, can't be blamed for their excesses. Moran, Babinsky and Skybell do a great deal of hand-waving and foot-stomping as their characters go about transforming Galy Gay into Jeraiah Jip. The turn that Frazier's asked to complete is radical enough so that he's off the hook.
As for Spinella--due shortly on Broadway with Estelle Parsons in The Velocity of Autumn--he's landed the part of a curmudgeonly older office that either is unclear in the writing or has simply escaped this commentator's understanding.
Then there's Bond, who's traveled something of a distance from cabaret and his Kiki and Herb to this legit offering. But maybe not that far. The depiction of Widow Begbick--a precursor of the much better delineated Mother Courage in the much better 1939 work about the devastating ironies of war--is more soignée than the usual Widow Begbick in costumer Gabriel Berry's flowing frocks. The highlight is undoubtedly Bond's claiming to sneak out before the intermission has ended to sing a song "cut from the second act."
The song is a moody ode Sheik has composed in the Kurt Weill-esque mode he's adapted for the entire enterprise. It's an obvious decision, and he follows it successfully enough.