“Man is man and that is why we had to shoot him.” Well, if that’s the case, why write an anti-war play attempting to prevent man from shooting another man? There is a tremendous tension between human nature, shown at its simplest and worst in the action of Brecht’s Man Is Man, and our attempts to subdue it in favor of a saner world, expressed through the action of writing and staging such a play. This tension gives the play its urgency in times of war and uncertainty such as these, when people struggle with their own passivity in the face of destruction and cruelty. The Elephant Brigade and director Paul Binnerts capitalize on this tension and bring this 1926 play into the present moment. Man Is Man tells the story of Galy Gay (charmingly portrayed by Natalie Kuhn), a poor porter on a simple mission. He wants to buy a fish. But being the gullible, opportunistic man that he is, he quickly finds himself posing as a soldier in exchange for some good words from the troops and a bunch of beer and cigars. Over the course of the play he will lose his identity entirely, and the jolly man we met at the opening will have become a heartless war monger.
So now you know what happens at the end, which could ruin it in some plays. This one, on the other hand, is not about the result, but about the process, about the experience of falling into a war – or that of falling into apathy about it. When Galy Gay’s wife (the excellent Lauren Blumenfeld) ends the first act singing “My Forgotten Man,” it sits in your stomach along with the pain for the hundreds of fresh American widows of the current war, which, you realize, you haven’t even contemplated in quite some time.
In order to better express this experiential component of the script, Binnerts puts the play in what he calls “real time theater,” a technique which is designed for the actors to “function as intermediaries between the play and the audience.” Throughout the two hours of the production the actors are always on stage, either as themselves or as one of the characters. They manipulate video cameras projected onto large screens around the stage, they click on a laptop to create sound effects, they hang scenery and they change costumes. When they speak they do not ignore the spectators but address them often, in what feels like an intermediary zone between self and character. Brecht himself was far from naturalistic with the acting style he employed with his own acting troupe, and it is exciting to witness a contemporary attempt to address both the material and the presentation in a stylized manner that seems like a distant cousin of Brecht’s attitude toward performance. Some of the young Elephants in this new Brigade have a stronger grasp on Real Time acting than others, putting more of themselves into Brecht’s words than what they learned in acting school. When the “acting” appears next to a more sincere presentation in real time by a person being herself onstage, its fakeness throws the spectator out of time, out of story, and back into his mind.
The strengths of this production overtake its weaknesses, and as Brecht would have wanted, the audience walks out thinking about what it means to live in times of war, about the great big machine of recruitment and bombs - Binnerts makes the most of the play’s theme of military recruitment techniques, bringing to the theater a major issue in the American public debate – about the experience of being rolled along by life as if we have no grip on anything, until we become people we once were not, perhaps even people we are not today.