The first course in a two-week Harvard Brechfest, A Man's a Man much resembles a glass of orange juice: acid, topped with froth, filled with stray bits of pith, and innocent of dramatic structure. Though technically clumsy, the Kirkland House production of this laboriously didactic work has its moments of low humor and sardonic truth. Its faults, for the most part, stem from the Brechtian bric-a-brac with which director Peter Weil has burdened the show.
As everyone knows, Brecht sought a theater of alienation which shocks the audience into constant awareness of social and moral problems. By using ritualized, non-naturalistic devices--slides and signs, self-consciously artificial musical numbers, characters addressing the audience directly--he blocked simple escapist identification with the characters on stage.
Brecht's best plays create a tension between the techniques of alienation and the humanity of the story line. His worst plays are like lectures with unusually ingenious visual aids.
One hesitates to consign A Man's A Man to the second category, but it is a relentlessly episodic history of immutably two-dimensional characters. Its message--that the army hampers self-expression--is obvious and overly familiar. Structurally limp, the play begins arbitrarily, and ends at least three times.
As it opens, a personable young Indian porter named Galy Gay sets out to buy his wife a fish. The British soon impress him, however, to fill out a four-man machine-gun squad; the man he replaces has been scalped by a doorway while robbing a temple. By the last of the endings, he not only defies his former identity but has become "a human fighting machine."
Though not physically equipped to play the big of that Brecht intended Galy Gay to be, Bro Uttal is, with some cutting of lines, adequate as a little oaf. He whines piteously at first and shouts fiercely afterwards; that he has no occasion for any other sort of verbalization can hardly be his fault.
David Cheshire, as Bloody Five--the name stems from an incident involving a number of unfortunate natives--sported a Dali-esque mustache and spat out his lines from between clenched teeth. His ranting remained interesting, and his transformation into a bowler-hatted and betailed civilian--following orders from an enterprising campfollower--was perhaps the evening's comic highpoint.
Virginia Morris, the object of his bristling affections, strutted and slutted with a cynical sort of gusto. Though gifted with no greater vocal ability than others in the cast, she carried her songs with her eyes and Lenya-esque phrasing. Susan Levenstein--her daughter--made the most of a single joke, played the piano when necessary, and displayed her garters to advantage.
The chorus of soldiers war led by Weil himself, who remained offstage for virtually the entire play and turned in a impeccably monotonous performance, more or less as Brecht intended.
His direction, too, seemed to go by the Brechtian book--stiff postures, rasping harangues, a loud sound track, slogan-scrawled set, and slides.
But techniques of alienation only really work when pitted against natural interest and sympathy. Faced with nothing but the thin preachiness of a clumsy scripts, the audience is only too glad to be alienated.