Famous Door Theatre Company

This is not a hoax. This is the real thing. Famous Door Theatre’s vital, vivid staging of Mann Ist Mann, directed by Nicolai Sykosch of Hamburg’s Thalia Theater, shows what can happen when a company of talented Chicago actors really link up with an inspired team of German artists, rather than just pretending to do so like the guys in Klown: Prick Us and We’ll Burst. Arranged by the Goethe-Institut Chicago, this wonderful collaboration between Famous Door, Sykosch, and designer Dirk Thiele–Sykosch’s longtime colleague at the Thalia–is a provocative, entertaining fusion of high-energy, tough-edged performing and colorfully cruel concept.

Written in 1926 by Bertolt Brecht and an unacknowledged team of coauthors led by Brecht’s assistant Elisabeth Hauptmann, and offered here in Gerhard Nellhaus’s translation, Mann Ist Mann is a hell of a hard play to pull off, which makes Famous Door’s brash and tasty production even more impressive. It’s got to be funny and thoughtful, extravagant and subtle, coarse and sensitive all at the same time–as it is here. Inspired by the empire-promoting fiction of Rudyard Kipling, the story concerns a weakling who’s turned into a war hero, a classic theme that the play turns upside down to offer a disturbing blueprint for reshaping the individual to the purposes of a dehumanizing society. Often categorized as an antiwar statement–and it is that in part–Mann Ist Mann is less a protest than a diagnosis of industrial civilization, a world in which the individuality of ever-more-disposable human beings is increasingly endangered.

Galy Gay, a sweet-natured softie who can’t say no, joins the British army as a joke, then is coerced into staying through a disorienting combination of enticements and intimidations. Outfitted with another soldier’s identity, Galy is transformed into a ruthless killing machine, ready to sink his teeth into the enemy’s neck. Under his new name of Jeraiah Jip, he finishes the play by delivering a funeral oration over the coffin of one Galy Gay, the last individual.

Galy’s story is presented as a carnal cabaret permeated with ridiculous slapstick and raucous racial humor, like a servicemen’s show that takes swipes at commanding officers, civilians, foreigners, and other scum. The soldiers who lure Galy into their ranks are overgrown schoolboys; their leader, a brutal martinet nicknamed Bloody Five, is a clownish control freak who shoots off his own cock because it won’t obey orders. The shooting isn’t realistic; nothing is in this cartoonlike comedy, played as bawdy barracks entertainment. “This is not funny!” shrieks Bloody Five in a Hitlerian rant at the show’s start; the audience’s laughter proves otherwise.

But behind the vaudevillian loopiness lurks a grim message. “Man is man,” says the Brechtian spokeswoman Widow Begbick, proprietress of the rolling brothel that follows the English army around the play’s make-believe colonial India. The phrase Mann ist Mann loses some of its meaning in translation–ist, the German for “is,” sounds like isst, the German for “eats.” But even without the pun, the slogan conveys disturbing ambiguities. “A man’s a man for a’ that,” declares Robert Burns in a poem extolling brotherhood. The line between camaraderie and collectivism is a thin one; a man’s a man, says Brecht, and one man’s as good as another.

Within a decade after this prescient play was written, a lot of good people would be submerged in the murderous collective consciousness of Nazi Germany. But the truth of Mann Ist Mann doesn’t end in Brecht’s own time. Nor is its application limited to the making of soldiers, though the disenchantment that followed World War I, which replaced romantic notions of battlefield heroism with the reality of war as mechanized slaughter, is at the play’s core (as it is at the core of the Gershwin-Kaufman Strike Up the Band, written a year later and coincidentally playing a few blocks south of Famous Door). Our peacetime society values consumers more than soldiers, for example; and the soldiers who subvert Galy’s sense of self by inundating him with false information, the visceral appeal of sex and violence, and subtle threats of social ostracism could just as easily be planning a TV-commercial strategy as a military campaign.

Played with a roughhouse vulgarity that drives the play briskly forward, Famous Door’s Mann Ist Mann establishes its absurdity with a garish neo-expressionist set painted in icky shades of orange, pink, and yellow, colors highlighted by the actors’ gray and black death’s-head clown makeup. To one side hangs a huge cutout hand straight out of a Monty Python cartoon, pointing at the prankish soldiers whose idea of a good time is shooting up a pagoda. Galy, meanwhile, is a man-child dressed in shorts and a knit cap; as played by the wonderfully ingratiating Stephen J. Rose, a ringer for Tweedledee, he’s a little boy delighted with the older kids’ attention, suggesting an immaturity of judgment that makes his ridiculous actions seem perfectly believable.

Rose’s sweet-spirited, beautifully modulated clowning is effectively offset by the harshness of the rest of the fine ensemble, which includes Steve Key as the pagoda proprietor Wang, Patrick New as the Brit twit whom Galy replaces, Dan Rivkin as the psychotically disciplined Bloody Five, and Elaine Rivkin as Begbick, a proto Mother Courage. Paul Dessau’s caustic songs (with what sounded like some uncredited contributions by Kurt Weill) acquire a ska flavor from the piano-saxophone-drums combo led by musical director James Schneider. The result is rich, raw, sharp, funny, and scary.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.