David Levine's new production of Bertolt Brecht's Man is Man is innovative and coherent, engaging and frightening--everything experimental theater should be.
Brecht's parable on the mutability of human identity charts the progress of Galy Gay, played expertly by Evan Sandman, who after leaving home to buy a fish becomes tangled up with a bloodthirsty trio of soldiers. The soldiers cajole the gullible Gay into impersonating one of their comrades. As the play continues, Gay absorbs the traits, mannerisms and speech patterns of the soldiers, the last act finds him so fully absorbed in his new identity that he is more murderous than any of them.
Brecht intends the audience to remain conscious of the artificiality of the actions on stage to that it can intellectually process the play's themes, rather than becoming emotionally involved. Sandman fulfills Brecht's challenge by presenting Galy Gar's transformation with consistent theatricality.
Other characters also represent the formation, mutation and loss of identity. Adam Feldman plays the deliciously crazy General Bloody Five, who in addition to being infamously brutal also becomes insatiably horny whenever it rains. Feldman's cartoon-like raving is terrifying and funny; he captures all the extremities of Bloody Five's moods, including his bewilderment as his grip on reality slips further and further away. A complement to Bloody Five's hysteria is the cool and calculating Widow saloon, who handles Bloody Five with nerves of steel and a hunger for money. Catherine Steindley's portrayal of Begbick is campy and shrill, but at times she reveals a vulnerability and sense of loss which, though not strictly Brechtian, is a welcome respite for the audience.
Not only are the characters in Man is Man unreal, they also inhabit an artificial, dreamlike world. The sets by James Murdoch are disjointed and angular, with ramshackle flats giving way to railroad tracks which slices the stage diagonally. The sounds of this world are also curie; a disembodied voice announces military maneuvers, and the cool mellow jazz of the onstage quintet--featuring most notably Alex Barnett on clarinet--provides an otherworldly, impressionistic musical undercurrent. The cuminsting battle scene is recreated with nightmarish intensity through the efforts of the sound and light crew.
The contrast between the compelling sensory aspects of this production and the artificiality be the players is weirdly provocative one leaves the theater bewildered and confused but determined to figure out what Brecht was getting at.
This intellectual analysis is the goal of Brachtian theatre; for attaining that goal the talented cast and crew of Man is Man deserve congratulation. Special praise, however, should go to Levine himself, with has managed to synthesize elements of wound, speech, and spectacle into an avant garde dream world which does not sacrifice coherence or resort to the arbitrary. Under Levine's direction, Brecht's Man is Man is a stimulating, intellectually exhilarating experience.