Uranium Madhouse Explores Brainwashing & Identity in 'A Man's a Man' at Atwater Village
Bertolt Brecht's didactic post-war play, A Man's a Man, is playing at Atwater Village Theatre. In the context of a timeless war, theatre company Uranium Madhouse examines institutionalization and the inherent frailty of socially structured personality though Brecht's plot: a scheming troupe of soldiers forcefully commandeers the selfhood of a civilian to save their own hides after committing a war crime. Though clearly a labor of love with some wonderful moments and a talented cast, this production of A Man's a Man loses fluidity and cohesive vision when taken as a whole struggling to compensate for the begrudging weaknesses of a translated Brecht script.
Professionally active from the 1920s through the 1960s in Germany, Austria, and the United States, the perpetually baby-faced Brecht is a notable playwright, poet, director, and dramaturg. Known for his poetic dialogue and socially symbolic themes, Brecht was heralded as a theatrical master in his day who collaborated with the likes of Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre. His exploration of the political climate surrounding both World Wars is apparent in many of his theatrical works and poems, but also landed him in the hot seat with the House Committee of Un-American Activities to which he responded to with wit and poise. His 1926 play Mann ist Mann (known in English as A Man's a Man or Man Equals Man) tackles militaristic brainwashing in British Colonial India through central character Gayly Gay. The script is simple with blighted tonalities that focus viewer attention on the debasement of the psyche through war. In its original German, the lines pour lyrically off the the stage, although this element of the play seems to be lost in its various English translations.
Faced with the tremendous challenge of working within the confines of sparingly developed characters, the cast of A Man's a Man is competent, thoughtful, and skilled. Yolanda Seabourne brings depth and provocative spirit to Widow Begbick, the role that serves as the roots and crux of Brecht's play. As central character Gayly Gay, Terence Leclere conveys a perfectly discerning delicacy and empathic angst for the deconstructed Gayly. Leclere also has a weird, but ultimately compelling Dan Aykroyd kind of vibe that we really dig. Playing the plot-propelling soldiers of the British Army's machine gun unit, Ian Forester, Andrew Perez, Alex Sell, and Christopher Wallinger are animated, energizing, and kinetically in tune with each other and the audience. Kelly Van Kirk rounds out the militaristic aspect of A Man's a Man with his crazed and and hyper-masculine rendering of Bloody Five. Finally, Feodor Chin gives the most entertaining performance in the show as the kind, but twisted temple boss, Mr. Wang.
Employing both his theatrical background and his Ph.D. in German Studies, Andrew Utter not only worked up a new translation of A Man's a Man for Uranium Madhouse, but also directs this production. It is easy to see that this theatrical undertaking was created out of love and reverence for the German post-war play, but unfortunately this creative pass does not quite pan out. Continuity is often broken by mismatched creative elements in the first and second acts coupled with unusually lengthy scene changes that appear to be unnecessary given the size of the performance space. The translation from German to English does an excellent job of conveying Brecht's message, but lacks the fresh, rolling quality of the original work. While not entirely thrilled with this show, we do love the theatrical aesthetics of A Man's a Man provided by Gwyneth Conaway-Bennison's costuming and Erik Flatmo's scenic design that seems to be an homage to our own nearby desert surroundings.
A Man's a Man is playing at Atwater Village Theatre through August 4. Tickets are $25 and available online or at the door.