A Man's a Man (2014)
As the Foundry Theatre’s inventive revival of The Good Person of Szechuan proved last year, it is possible to mount the works of expressionist giant Bertolt Brecht in a way that is not only inventive but fun. Now Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company is producing a mostly entertaining revival of the early Brecht comedy A Man’s a Man. The story centers on a guileless porter in British colonial India (the appealing Gibson Frazier) who is snookered into impersonating a British soldier — and then convinced that he really is that man. Not unlike Shen Tei, the kind-hearted Good Person of Szechuan, Gay begins as a figure of farce but winds up one of tragedy.
Classic Stage has been on a tear with Brecht in recent years, with productions of Galileo and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. And director Brian Kulick’s A Man’s a Man, playing through Feb. 16, is by far the most successful of the three. Perhaps stealing a page from the Foundry’s Szechuan, Kulick cunningly deploys a solid cast and a good deal of stagecraft to make the challenging, cross-genre material seem relevant to modern audiences.
There’s a clever designed set (by Paul Steinberg) that repurposes giant orange oil drums to mimic trees, trains, benches, and even an elephant. There’s striking lighting (by Justin Townsend) that at one point even renders the vibrant set into a black-and-white tableau. Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) has composed a tuneful new score, particularly a torch-song ballad that starts the second act.
And most important, there’s a prominent performance by a downtown transgender artist. In Szechuan, it was Taylor Mac in the title role; here, it is the luminous cabaret vet Justin Vivian Bond as the Widow Begbick, a proto-Mother Courage figure who will do just about anything to remain in the favor of the ever-shifting powers that be. Bond manages to ground the production while winking at its artifice.
Though one of the play’s main themes is the potential interchangeability of man, you should be able to better distinguish the soldier characters from each other. The convoluted plot also has a tendency to drag, particularly in the second act. But for the most part, A Man’s a Man is a diverting fable with a presciently ambivalent message for our times. As the Widow Begbick says, ”Of all sure things the surest is doubt.” B
(Tickets: classicstage.org or 866-811-4111)