Brecht’s 1926 anti-war polemic Man Is Man tracks the harrowing transformation of a naive porter in British India as he turns into a soldier with a craving to kill. As the lights rise, protagonist Galy Gay and his wife discuss what to eat for dinner. But after Galy Gay departs to buy fish, he’s shanghaied into posing as a missing private in the machine-gun division of the British Army. He stays on of his own volition, inveigled by the promise of beer and cheap cigars. A day later, relishing the conqueror’s side of violence, he’s no longer recognizable.
This inventive but bloated production, directed by Paul Binnerts and performed by the Elephant Brigade, an assembly of NYU undergrads and alumni, offers trenchant observations about the tragedies of modern warfare. The piece makes generous use of music, props, a model village, a video camera, and direct address to the audience. Natalie Kuhn (as Galy Gay) leads the spirited cast, an odd but understandable choice given the engaging contrast between her wide-eyed softness and the brutality Galy Gay perpetrates.
“Can it really be done?” inquires a soldier. “Changing one man into another?” From there the question arises as to whether the masterminds behind such brainwashing can lose command of their creation. The answer, laid bare on a stage overrun by toy tanks, is an unnerving yes. As the soldiers bomb a village, the air fills with fake gas, which evaporates into hollow despair.