After a shocking act of pillaging by a machine gun unit, the hapless Galy Gay (Gibson Frazier)—who cannot say “no” to any request—is forcibly enlisted into the British Colonial Army under the name Jeraiah Jip. This farce consistently strains believability: Galy Gay is so dopey he wouldn’t just buy the Brooklyn Bridge, but offer even more money. The incredulousness comes to a head in the beginning of the second act, where Galy Gay head-slappingly believes that a pile of barrels with a mounted elephant head is actually an elephant stolen from the army. It’s an amusing, if corny moment. The audience shouldn’t be surprised—the Classic Stage Company production of Brecht’s A Man’s a Man demands constant imagination, and we should assume that also applies to its characters. The first act begins with Polly Baker (Jason Babinsky), a soldier in the British Colonial Army, signing a Playbill for the first row. The second act’s opening number is introduced as one “cut from the second act.” From the first time we experience the setting, an India “that is suspiciously Rudyard Kipling-like,” we’re prepared for an extremely imaginative take on what ends up being a fairly sober play about colonialism, militarism, and masculinity.
Of those three themes, the Classic Stage Company’s production has the most to say about the eponymous Man and what makes him one. First, the role of Widow Begbick is played by Justin Vivian Bond, an important avant-garde artist whose work often deals with transgender. V (Mx. Bond prefers this pronoun) uses v’s nontraditional gender to deeply complicate the only female role in a play, that again, we must repeat, is called A Man’s a Man. V is fantastic: Widow Begbick is alternately hilarious and inspiring as the only point of sexual desire among the British soldiers. It should also be noted that the role of Mr. Wang, the scheming coolie and only non-white character in the play, is played by Ching Valdes-Aran, the only woman in the cast.
The other notable aspect of this rare revival is that it features original music by Duncan Sheik, who won a Tony in 2007 for his original score for Spring Awakening. The six or seven original numbers are easy listening, in a Sting B-side sort of way, but they do help break up the onslaught of dialogue which, like the plot, is often unclear about where it is going.
Even the traffic barrels that fool Galy Gay end up being a strong point of the performance. The set is almost fully comprised of somewhat industrial traffic drums repurposed to make a fully featured Indian jungle, and later a train, and later barricades from which a newly transformed Galy Gay fires artillery towards the peaceful people of Nepal. The shocking transformation of the dopey Galy Gay into a firebreathing warrior mirrors the Classic Stage Company’s approach to an early Brecht play, one that finds themes previously unimagined.