When the main character in a play is named "Gayly Gay," you can rightly expect a kooky, campy cabaret, and Giant Squid Productions's presentation of Bertolt Brecht's A Man's a Man at the New York International Fringe Festival delivers. Gayly Gay is recruited into the British army in India against his better judgment by a pack of soldiers eager to take advantage of his affable gullibility. To do so, they sell him a fake elephant, which later leads to his court-martial when he attempts to unload it on someone else. In order to escape his death, the pusillanimous Gay changes his persona to a self-righteous, rifle-toting "tool" of realpolitik.
Brecht's early Lehrstück, or learning plays, have been relatively neglected, compared with his later, mature work, known as "epic theater." The learning plays have, somewhat unfairly, been characterized as too overt in their didacticism; audiences may simply want to be entertained, but Brecht wanted to "alienate" them so they'd think, and be changed by his social messages.
This version of A Man is pure fun, however, because the very serious themes of colonialism and the socialization of war through the military-industrial complex have been tempered with catchy pop anthems, sexy costumes, and lots of outrageous, if low-budget, theatricality. Director Leah Bonvissuto has interpreted Brecht's formalized style of acting—known as gestus, where the actor is supposed to present the "gist" of a character only through a series of rigid gestures—as kabuki-like slapstick. In this mode, the actors universally stand out, notably Timothy McDonough as he presents Gay's transformation and John Gray as the drill sergeant, Bloody Five, who possesses all the comic, overblown machismo of a professional wrestler.
While the devices of Brechtian dramaturgy have been amply garnished (with placards, breaking down the fourth wall, and actors representing objects as well as people), these become, in the deft hands of Bonvissuto and her talented cast, additional sources of camp extravagance instead of heavy-handed propaganda. This production of A Man demonstrates that one may contemplate politics while also bouncing one's head along to the band.