A Man's a Man
nytheatre.com review by Tomi Tsunoda
August 11, 2006
In A Man's A Man, ordinary citizen Gayly Gay (Timothy McDonough) goes out to find a fish and gets sucked into a farcical plot that transforms him into a soldier for Britain's Indian army. Swimming in role reversals, this early and little-known Bertolt Brecht play (here translated by Eric Bentley) twists forward like a Shakespeare comedy, where simple costume changes, avoidance of responsibility, and dizzying rationalizations rob some men and free others of their identities.
Giant Squid Productions, led by director Leah Bonvissuto, puts forth a great effort to embrace the Brechtian Aesthetic—a series of theatrical conventions that reveal and acknowledge that we are in a theatre, watching actors. The live rock band and the vibe of Mo Pitkins' bar contributes to a cabaret atmosphere, with a waitress delivering food and taking new drink orders throughout the performance.
The absurdist shtick is endless, and with the large ensemble crowded onstage for a kazoo chorus, or delivering dialogue across our tables, the show starts to feel like a circus clown car unloading as characters, scene titles, props, costumes, and quirky songs pour out into the little room. The idea of all of this feels in the right spirit of Brecht's theatre, but instead of embracing the bar's intimacy, the show struggles to maintain a style that seems to pretend the space is much larger, and plays the ridiculous for the sake of humor and not much else.
In fact, the style of the show is so aggressive that it was difficult to stay invested in the story of Gayly Gay. The potential relevance of this story and its symbolism—the name Gayly Gay, the recruitment to the army, the series of identity losses, elephants as the symbol of the state—gets buried beneath the waterfall of physical comedy bits and prop gags. Instead of acting as a megaphone for the story and a political point of view, the style of the show swallows and drowns the true Brechtian priority of social relevance for a contemporary audience.
The cast does an impressive job of keeping up the energy this production demands. All of them execute the style with skill and commitment, though sadly the actors with the most stage time—like much of the rest of the production —seem unable to offer much more than the style alone. The most notable exceptions are McDonough's Gayly Gay (thankfully), John Gray as the famed soldier Bloody Five, and ensemble actors Mary Cavett and Joshua Edelmann, who bring fresh air to the stage with every entrance and choice they make.
The elements that steal the show are the musical composition and the costume design. The low-budget creativity of Marina Reti's costumes and the constant surprises they deliver are some of the show's most satisfying moments, and carry a lot of the story that does manage to get itself on stage. Arnold Black's music smartly utilizes moments of offbeat or off-tune melodies to create a slightly unstable circus world that is driven by a rock feel, which musical directors Margarita Martinez and Tomer Busidan bring to the surface.
Overall, the boundless energy pouring forth from this team deserves applause, but it's a shame it wasn't put to purpose. With such a master of political storytelling as Brecht, the lack of a clear point of view here seems not only a missed opportunity, but also leaves me wondering why this team wanted to bring this obscure text to the stage.