Prisoners of the Past

The Brig and Frost/Nixon use yesterday's nightmares to mirror today's reality

American history, the nightmare from which we never awake, seems to be haunting the theater this year. Or maybe, just maybe, the presence of so many productions using the past to reflect our current national chaos is a sign that the electorate—or at least its tiny theatergoing segment—is beginning to wake up. Hard to tell: Uptown, to judge by the weekly grosses, they apparently don't want the war news even if it comes from 1918, via England, in the shape of a gorgeous production like Journey's End. Downtown—well, this year, downtown has done better when looking back than when focused on the here and now. The more intriguing new plays have been about retrospection and roads not taken; those featuring decisive action in the present have been decidedly few.

No wonder the return of the Living Theatre as a producing institution, with a shiny new space on the Lower East Side, feels so exhilarating. Kenneth H. Brown's The Brig is a play of consequence, both aesthetically and politically. Its 1963 production by the LT not only set off reverberations that rippled through the whole Off-Off movement, it led to questions in Congress, the theater's seizure by the IRS, jail terms for its founders, and the company's departure to Europe for a five-year exile. They came back with a new visionary mode of collective creation, touring the country just in time to meet the upheaval stirring on campuses all over the U.S. What had started in that little space on 14th Street as an Artaudian experiment in biomechanics became one of the bigger explosions in our cultural history.

The Brig was able to achieve all that because it made no effort to be anything but itself. A chronicle of one day's events in a Marine Corps brig, it creates drama while repudiating every known rule of playwriting, except perhaps Stanislavsky's rule that in theater, action is always paramount. The Brig is nothing but action, an endless ritual of military humiliation, then as now choreographed by director Judith Malina with a balletic precision that is carefully kept too horrifying for us ever to get carried away by its beauty. Language is used primarily as a weapon, the guards barking their commands at the "maggots" and "insects" under their care and compelling the prisoners to shout back their rote responses. White lines on the floor demarcate the areas of the cell block, and no inmate may cross one without a shout of "Prisoner number two [or whichever] requests permission to cross white line, sir!" This sentence comprises at least two-thirds of the spoken text. At peak moments, when all the prisoners are set to work at menial, often meaningless tasks, the line is repeated contrapuntally till it grows from a maddening refrain into a nightmarish, dissonant quodlibet, accompanied by the rigidly precise movements of military drill. (The program credits original cast member Steven Ben Israel with "ensemble training.")

Language as weapon: The Brig
photo: John Ranard
Language as weapon: The Brig

Details

The Brig
By Kenneth H. Brown
The Living Theatre
21 Clinton Street
212-352-3101

Frost/Nixon
By Peter Morgan
Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th Street
212-239-6200

Unlike a conventional play, The Brig tells us nothing about who these prisoners are as people or why they were put in this hellhole. And that is precisely its point. Instead, we experience a situation in which totalitarian torment has drilled the humanity out of them. The only spoken line that could constitute "dialogue" in the normal sense of the word comes when one prisoner cracks under the pressure and is carried off in a straitjacket, screaming, "My name is not Six! It's James Turner!" In a kind of ultimate sneer at traditional dramaturgy, the new inmate who takes his place near the play's end gets the explanations that, in a standard work like Journey's End, would come at the beginning; explanations are not what The Brig is about. Never signaling to us how we ought to view the prisoners' situation, and never milking it to provoke emotional reactions from us, the piece simply presents what happens. If watching it makes you think of Abu Ghraib, of Guantánamo, of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe, or of a U.S. government that claims the right to hold its own citizens incommunicado for months on end without criminal charges, don't blame the Living Theatre; blame the forces that shut it down in 1963. And see this devastating performance before they try that again.

If The Brig's power comes from the U.S. military's being tragically the same in 2007 as in 1963, or worse, Frost/Nixon gets its resonance from the difference. Though Peter Morgan's play centers on President Nixon's on-camera post-Watergate "confession" to British interviewer David Frost, its unconscious moral is how good Tricky Dick looks, compared to the slime we have in office now. Frank Langella's performance, every bit as remarkable as you've heard, plays to this unspoken agenda by making everything about Nixon a little larger and slower than real life. Shambling, his shoulders hunched, this baggy-jowled, rumble-voiced creature nonetheless towers over everyone else onstage, a presidential Frankenstein monster to match Langella's celebrated Count Dracula. That Nixon displayed his deep-dyed arrogant criminality-, over which Morgan's script only skims, by telling Frost, "If the president does it, it's not illegal," becomes a comparatively small point. Disgraced, self-destructive, phlebitic, clutching at any scrap of proffered sympathy, he comes off as the wreck of some imposing ancient icon.

Without the stature Langella brings, Frost/Nixon wouldn't be much, despite Michael Grandage's skillful staging and fine work in smaller roles by the likes of Stephen Kunken, Corey Johnson, Armand Schultz, and Stephen Rowe. Morgan's play focuses mainly on the travails of assembling and marketing Frost's interviews with the unchastened Tricky-—not nearly so important a historical nexus as Morgan strives to make it seem. Michael Sheen does a marvelous impersonation of Frost, all shine and smiles over the aching inner hollowness, but historical reality has him outpointed before he begins.

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