Man Equals Man Doesn’t Quite Add Up

Ohio University’s  Theater Department’s performance of Bertolt Brecht’s Man Equals Man, doesn’t quite add up.  If there was not a large lighted sign with the words “Man = Man” hanging as the backdrop, the audience might immediately wonder if they have entered the right theater.  The setting of this play, which contains content that reveals the complex complications of war and identity ironically, takes place in a circus tent. But, fear not, you have not stepped into a demented circus.  Although puzzling at first, the visual appeal and outstanding acting during this performance cannot be denied.

Man Equals Man was written by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht in the early 1920s.  The modernist play set in the British Colonial India incorporates intricate themes reflecting on the loss of individualism as well as Brecht’s interpretation of the forces of imperialism, fascism and capitalism in the twenty-first century.  The plays main character, Galy Gay starts off as an impressionable porter who is eventually brainwashed by the Machine Gun Section Eight, a platoon of the British Army.

As OU’s Theater Department presents Man Equals Man, directed by Brian Evans, the ironic setting is only one of challenges the audience has to deal with.  Fortunately, the acting by Eb Madson as Galy Gay as well as the rest of the cast was enjoyable.  Specifically, the character of Widow Begbick (Heather Petersen), who is introduced as the sexual deviant in the story, provides an entertaining and enjoyable performance.  Most importantly, Madson is able to capture the pitiful Gay as he begins his downfall to destruction. Sadly, it may have been the complexity of the storyline that was lost in translation.  For an audience that may not be familiar with the theories of Karl Marx, or comedy of Charlie Chaplin or has asthma (there is a lot of fog used throughout the show) this may not be the best choice.

The beginning of the play is rather confusing as it takes the audience in between scenes of the members of the Machine Gun Section Eight at the Pagoda of the Yellow God and Galy Gay on his journey to buy fish.  As the first act continued, it became apparent that the audience struggled to determine when it was appropriate to laugh, as only a few laughs were uttered throughout the theatre. When the story finally began to pick up momentum, it was suddenly time for an intermission, but there was hope restored that the second act would be more pleasing.  Unfortunately, this did not prove to be true.  Although the actors continued to provide a great performance, the humor and ability to hold the audience’s attention fell short.

The costumes, clearly inspired by the circus motif, were an aspect of the performance worthy of praise.  The visual compilation of the setting and wardrobe, reminiscent of a Tim Burton film, meshed together to create a scary but attractive take on the changing environment.  In addition to the illuminated sign hung in the background there hung a large gong, manned by a disturbing looking clown that provided all of the sound effects throughout the performance.  The theatre was also occupied by an Asian pagoda and dilapidated carriage that worked well to create a visually interesting atmosphere.

Although the complex themes of Brecht’s societal critique may not have translated as well as desired to the audience, they are still relevant and relatable today.  As Gay says, “All that matters is that you be the way people want you to be, that’s the easiest.”  OU’s adaptation of Man Equals Man may be a little lackluster in its storytelling, but it is worth seeing, even if it’s just for two hours of eye entertainment.


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