A Man’s A Man
If playwright Bertolt Brecht were alive today, he’d likely blanch at the contemporary tendency to seek common ground with those whose ideologies are diametrically opposed to one’s own. His dozens of plays speak truth to power in daring, direct language and, while farce and sarcasm are employed, his repeated denunciations of colonialism, war, and militarism are boldly presented. A Man’s a Man (sometimes called Man Equals Man) was first staged in Dusseldorf and Darmstadt, Germany in 1926. Eighty-four years later, The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s beautifully-presented staged reading of the play is so relevant that the audience quickly forgets the age of the work.
Themes include the folly of armed conflict; the ways gender stereotypes are used to manipulate men and women into serving the Empire; and the ways youth are unscrupulously lured into patriotic service. Identity—whether we develop into thinking adults or order-following automatons—also comes into focus. The end result is riveting—full of wit, sass, and pointed jabs at the never-ending quest for land and resources that ensnares so many political regimes.
The action of A Man’s a Man follows a motley band of soldiers who belong to The Royal Imperial Army. In Kilkoa, India to guard—or perhaps loot—the Pagoda of the Yellow Monks, the play zeroes in on the Eighth Regiment, AKA The Scum—and what happens when one of their members, Jeraiah Jip, suddenly becomes unable to continue in Her Majesty’s armed forces. Since a Unit requires four men, the remaining three expect big trouble when Sergeant Fairchild, AKA Bloody Five [played by Grant Neale], arrives on the scene. Known for his fiery temper—Bloody earned his nickname after killing five Hindu prisoners—his underlings know that their superior will be apoplectic when, or if, he learns that Jip is gone.
In short order, Unit members devise a plan in which happy-go-lucky Galy Gay (Josh Tyson), “a man who can’t say no,” is hoodwinked into pretending to be the no-longer-present Mr. Jip. “One man is as good as another,” the soldiers quip, thrilled to have concocted so simple a solution to their conundrum. Gay is first promised cigars and beer for agreeing to go along with the deception; later, as they step up their brainwashing, the audience watches Gay morph into the perfect soldier—compliant, docile, and obedient.
The ten short scenes of A Man’s a Man, framed by a Prologue and Epilogue, move quickly, and include a bevy of rousing—and pitch-perfect, often hilarious—song-and-dance numbers. The nine characters, plus a keyboardist, are on stage at all times. They read with tremendous force, unapologetically delivering Brecht’s none-too-subtle critique of imperialist expansion. Elise Stone is particularly good as Widow Begbick, whose wily charms are used to raise questions about what it means for men to be men. Her sexy persona is used to profound effect and showcases the inane impact of both personal and political rapacity—whether in 1920s India or today’s Iraq and Afghanistan.
The seven-year-old Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is to be commended for reviving a play that other actors had relegated to history’s attic. The Company asks that patrons pay $25 per ticket, but their policy is to allow audience members to pay whatever they wish for each show.