- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

What’s “A Man’s a Man” all about? Smoking and tumbling, tumbling and smoking. There’s some flailing about of black stocking-clad limbs (those belonging to actress Valerie Leonard, who plays with avaricious glee both the craven widow Begbick and a master of ceremonies of sorts) for variety and some flatulence and camel-dung jokes thrown in here and there, but primarily Bertolt Brecht’s early attempt at revolutionizing theater is about everything and nothing.

By “everything,” I refer to a grab-bag of styles and conventions, ranging from Weimar Republic-style cabaret and silent movie hijinks to Monty Python-style absurdist humor and lofty philosophical musings on what a piece of work man is.

The production, directed with determined liveliness by Hungarian director/actor Eniko Eszeni stresses the hurly-burly aspects of the play. Scenes, styles, comic bits, song-and-dance, sexual encounters and theatrical effects are hurled at you like flaming batons, and it is up to the audience to not only catch everything, but keep the various elements aloft in our brains in the hope-against-hope that it all might mean something in the end. For the most part, we fail miserably.

It is the nothingness of this play that numbs you, not to mention that this ironic comedy is just not funny enough to sustain its two-hour-plus length. It is well-nigh impossible to go from scatological humor to profound insights on the nature of humanity and identity, and although the cast tries its utmost to balance the extremes, much of the play sags from the burden.

The overall burden is further weighted by excess and overstatement. Karl Eisti’s set is a beauty, evoking the desert landscape so impeccably you fear the sand may scorch the actors’ feet, and there is some amazing stage business utilizing the appearing and disappearing of foxholes, pouring rain, and an impromptu magic lantern show involving four soldiers stealing into a pagoda. But no one in this show seems to know when to stop, as the rain effect is used twice, and the other bits of stage magic are also employed injudiciously.

The excess extends to the acting, which swings wildly between the off-puttingly heavy-handed and declamatory on the one hand to the virtually impassive on the other.

The latter is the problem with the play’s main character, Galy Gay (Zachary Knower), a dockworker in India who goes to buy fish for dinner but winds up straying so far off his errand that he loses his identity.

Galy is meant to be an Every-Schlub, a guy who goes from a simple peasant life to being exploited by a bunch of British soldiers, the widow Begbick and others until he is so estranged from his true self that he begins to adopt the persona of others.

Mr. Knower is so blandly earnest that he doesn’t make much of an impression. Perhaps he is supposed to be a blank slate, but the audience must experience some sense of shared humanity to want to join him on his bizarre journey. He is swallowed up by this production and the more strident actors in it.

“A Man’s a Man” is not a total loss. Indeed, until it is hopelessly mired in the second act, the production is an engrossing mess. There is a priceless comic scene where the soldiers attempt to sell Galy an invisible elephant, where nimble physical humor combines with screamingly funny sound effects by Dwayne Nitz, one of the pit musicians in pith helmets. His full roster of elephant sounds — from angry to amatory — are not to be missed.

Amusing bits here and there help to alleviate the bloat of “A Man’s a Man,” but it cannot save this queasy hybrid of over-seriousness and crass humor.

**

WHAT: “A Man’s a Man,” by Bertolt Brecht

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 7.

TICKETS: $42 to $60

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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