Enlist: Only your identity will be sacrificed

Recruitment rather than relaxation framed either side of the performance of Bertolt Brecht’s drama Man is Man. Calls for new recruits came at the beginning and end of the play, urging audience members to step on stage at any time if they felt the need to join up.

Before the play began, audience members sat on wooden benches of all shapes and sizes and watched the actors apply makeup and perform warm-up exercises. If you were expecting a play that allowed you to lose yourself in the setting, you were wrong. The actors, all junior drama majors, prepared for the show while sitting on crates inside cubbyholes. Powder, cloth scraps, and water bottles were abundant, enabling the audience to see the students transform into soldiers before their eyes.

When the play began with a song urging the audience to join the army and see the world, one thing was made certain: Civilians were looked down upon.

Brecht’s work did not originally include musical numbers, but director Kathleen Amshoff asked current drama graduate student Chris Diamond and Michael Kooman, a graduate of the music composition program, to collaborate on a few songs for the piece. “The songs and the frame at the very beginning and end are the only ‘contemporary moments’ in the play,” said Amshoff, referring to recruitment calls surrounding the body of the performance.

Though it was hard for audience members to suspend any disbelief while seated less than 10 feet from the actors, the venue itself was an excellent choice. Man is Man was performed at the Sage Room on Fifth Avenue, a former children’s clothing store. All the players were dressed in dirty uniforms or ragged civilian clothing, and the venue gave the appearance of something old and worn as well.

Amshoff fought hard to secure the venue, which is about to be torn down. “It had everything we needed,” she said of the space, which included old rolling ladders and a large wall full of wooden shelves. The entire feeling of the venue enforced the roughness, the dirtiness, and the even the directness of the subject matter.

Man is Man tells the story of a porter named Gayly Gay (Sean Hamrin) who — according to his wife — cannot say no. One day Gay goes out, innocently enough, to buy a fish and is coerced into posing as a soldier by a ragtag group of machine gunners who have lost the fourth member of their unit. From the moment Gay is introduced to the gunners, he starts to fall away from who he once was.

Tim Israel, a drama junior who served as a dramaturg for the play, explained that Brecht originally wrote Man is Man as a celebration of socialism. Israel said, “He was looking to mobilize the masses; he was looking to celebrate that a person can be reconstituted to fit in with the masses.” After the Nazis gained power, Brecht rewrote the play as a condemnation of conformity, Israel explained.

The play, adapted by Amshoff from the original, devotes most of its time to exploring how Gay changes after spending time with the machine gun soldiers. At first, Gay is devoted to a pregnant wife (played by Allison Byrnes) and eager to return home. But the friendship of the soldiers influences him so much that when Mrs. Gay inquires after him at the army canteen, her husband pretends not to recognize her so that the soldiers won’t be punished for losing a man. By the play’s end, Gay no longer even knows who he is.

“It is a negative view of the military,” said Amshoff of the play. “I really wanted to keep emphasizing to people in the production that to me the military was a metaphor for any institution that demands conformity.”

Israel viewed the play in its present adaptation as an attack on propaganda more so than the military. “If we’re being radical it’s because we feel within our right in this current atmosphere of bumper-sticker slogans.... You can slap a sticker on your car and feel that you’ve done your job.”

Whether it condemns the military or not, the play spends considerable space exploring the theme of identity. Towards the end, one of the machine gunners, Uriah (Dusty Alvarado), sinisterly begins to suggest that there are several stages to removing a man from his identity. In these darkly humorous scenes, the machine gunners trick Gay into buying a fake elephant and then put him on trial for attempting to sell it.

While Gay is being transformed into a permanent fourth man for the machine-gun unit, the commander of the troops, Bloody 5 (Jarid Faubel), is experiencing the opposite transition. Faubel was excellent in both his roles, one as Bloody 5 and the other as Wang, the guardian of a pagoda. It is through Bloody 5 that we see the mirror to Gay’s story: Fallen from his position as a feared leader, Bloody 5 is beaten and ridiculed by his own men when his “desires” get the better of him. (When it rains, Bloody 5 is taken over by the desire for female company.)

Though Amshoff said she made cuts to the end of the play, the performance lost momentum under the weight of its rhetoric and started to drag. It sparkled best in its moments of humor, such as when the machine-gun unit gets stuck in tar while stealing from the pagoda. Despite the slower pace of the play’s second half, there couldn’t have been a more ideal time to watch a play about the dangers of a military state than the week of the 2006 midterm elections.

The play was overly heavy-handed in its attempt to caution, but perhaps that was the intent. “It’s provocation in whatever way,” said Amshoff, “We really want, more than anything, discussion.”