It is, perhaps, the La Jolla Playhouse's most ambitious production of the season.
The sets by Doug Stein star as a series of colorful, cartoon-like, corrugated cutout drops. They go up and down, supplemented by wagons that roll on and off.
The pit is a command post of assorted technician/musicians who run tapes when they're not noodling synthesizers or instruments. And the presence of the clown, Bill Irwin, playing Galy Gay in this "A Man's a Man," with a fake mustache crudely held on by a rubber band, reminds us that director Robert Woodruff sees this early anti-war tract by Bertolt Brecht primarily as a vaudeville entertainment.
He is not the first. Brecht did too, but Woodruff's approach is full of strong imagery and slapstick that leaven the Brechtian didacticism while retaining its ferocity. The entire first half, in fact, is a succession of clever ideas and comedic routines designed to top one another, in which performance and technology constantly vie for attention.
Gerhard Nellhaus' translation keeps virtually intact this morality tale of the dockworker who goes out to buy a fish and gets (a) waylaid by the Widow Begbick, purveyor to the army of sexual favors and beer and (b) sidetracked by a scuzzy band of soldiers who urgently need to replace one of their missing men. The widow's three daughters and an epilogue have been eliminated but everything else remains the same--including the 1925 fictitious Kilkoa location, which, if one is to believe the movie posters and the references to Hyderabad, is another Brechtian fantasyland more or less located in India.
Woodruff, perversely, carries the muddle further by making Galy Gay Irish, by giving him a distinctly south-of-the-border wife (Gloria Mann) and by casting a black actor (Felton Perry) as Wang the Bonze (high priest) of the Old Pagoda of the Yellow God--to say nothing of Stein's landscapes that also look suspiciously like Central American rain forests.
But let it pass. If Brecht could reinvent America for "Mahagonny," why shouldn't he, Woodruff and Stein reinvent India--and even 1925--for "A Man's a Man"?
The significant core of the play, of course, is the entrapment and transformation of the mild-mannered peasant Galy into the sophisticated military predator, Jeraiah Jip.
Woodruff and Stein have so dazzled us with invention in the first half of this show that they run out of steam by the play's much more lumbering (and difficult) second half.
Long sequences of moral ploy and counterploy descend upon us like a fog, relieved here and there by occasional clever effects: the elephant that Galy Gay is talked into owning and selling, the reproduction of fierce or famous wartime photographs as living tableaux. But the production can't quite get its wind back. By the time we get to the final siege and fall of Sir El Jowr, the Big Bang has become a whimper and cannons pop like toys.
Irwin does his share with a precarious balance of energy and restraint. This doesn't always pay off. He properly subdues the clown aspects of his work and there shines in him the quintessential Everyman found in all true innocents. But Irwin is in trouble when it comes time to deal with the play's profoundly central issue: the nature of identity, who we are as opposed to who we and others think we are. Blackness eludes him at some visceral level and the dark menace in the creature Galy becomes simply cannot be settled for by the mere shedding of a fake mustache.
A good deal of much broader clowning is relegated to grotesqueries of costume and makeup (excellent work in this department by Susan Denison) and to other performers. In particular: The machine-gun unit (Ebbe Roe Smith, Maury Chaykin, Geoff Hoyle, John Vickery), the Widow Begbick (a well-endowed and lazily suggestive Brandis Kemp) and, above all, Ray Barry as the ferocious Bloody Five, whose growl turns to erotic howl as soon as rain begins to threaten.
Still for all the stated reservations--the second act doldrums, a climax manque , the sense of overproduction, some perplexity about the use of sound and music and the seeming reduction of song--this "A Man's a Man" remains a major achievement.
Through the theatrical burlesque of its jaundiced cynicism and its heightened element of farce is a real entertainment. Whatever the production's flaws, they are more frequently the result of choice rather than accident. Above all else, what one perceives here is intelligence at work.
Performances at the Mandell Weiss Center for the Peforming Arts on the UCSD campus run through Aug. 10; (619) 452-3960.
'A MAN'S A MAN' A play by Bertolt Brecht presented by the La Jolla Playhouse at the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts, UCSD campus, La Jolla. Director Robert Woodruff. Translator Gerhard Nellhaus. Sets Doug Stein. Costumes Susan Denison. Lighting Richard Riddell. Music Douglas Wieselman. Sound Victor Zupanc. Stage manager Julie Haber. Assistant director Michael Kantor. Dramaturge Bartlett Sher. Choreogoraphy consultant Bonnie Johnston. Cast Ray Barry, Maury Chaykin, Geoff Hoyle, Bill Irwin, Brandis Kemp, Felton Perry, Ebbe Roe Smith, John Vickery and others.