''The Brig'' by Kenneth H. Brown.
Directed by Judith Malina at the Living Theatre 21 Clinton St., NYC
April 26- Aug. 5, 2007. Wed.- Sat at 8; Sun. at 4 PM.
Tickets: $20-30, pay what you wish on Wed. 212-352-3101.
by Glenda Frank
Political theatre has a short shelf life. References grow obscure, the problems are vanquished by new crises, and the public's attention wanders. "The Brig" is an exception. What's first impressive about the current revival of Kenneth H. Brown's antiwar play -- in the new (heralded or notorious, depending on your perspective) Living Theatre -- is how fresh it feels. Much of that has to do with the precision and delicate touch of Judith Malina, who directed it at its premiere in 1963 as protest against the Viet Nam war. This production is a must-see not only for its frighteningly timeless political statement but also for its perverse beauty and clarity -- a high aesthetic that transcends and enhances the political.
At its heart are ten prisoners – men with shaved heads in identical uniforms who have no names and whose crimes are never identified. Guarded by three guards, they live in a cage that makes the average New York studio seem spacious. To tie their shoes, one group must turn sideways so the others have room to kneel. Bathroom breaks are at a run. To rest, they are allowed to stand by their bunks and read their manuals.
We follow them from morning through evening. The day is a composite of senseless regimentation designed to humiliate and abuse. But director Judith Malina adds a sensual beauty to every aspect of their day, so that we seesaw between the human nightmare and the stark poetry of the production. We are forced to be fully alive and alert. The argument in 1963 was the brutality of military justice. Today the action is also a gloss on Guantanamo Bay and the treatment of the detainees. But we, the audience, are different. The work of Sartre and Theatre of the Absurd are now common reference points. "The Brig" has become a startling Beckettian study, a pre-end game that allows the limited possibility of a world beyond the prison exit door, stage left.
Moments stands out. The men line up so close that the chin of one touch the nape of the neck of the man in front of him. They jockey for position. It looks like Three Stooges– but it's more about discomfort than comedy. On a smoke break, the men are allowed to choose their groups, smokers and non. A guard lights only one cigarette, which in turn will become the light for the others. And then the random abuse begins. One soldier is punched. Another is forced to extinguish his cigarette. The rest continue to puff nervously, glad to be ignored. At another time, two men march to the garbage and one is placed inside the filled metal can to protect him, he is told, from shrapnel. He doesn't want to go – maybe he knows what's coming – but does not dare actively resist. Then the lid is placed on the can and the guard bangs it violently.
There are fleeting gestures of fierce tenderness. A guard straightens out a prisoner's collar or he doesn't shout but allows the man passing by a microsecond of human dignity. In these half-pauses, the game playing begins to seem like tough love, sadism designed to teach the men to conform and stay clean.
The actors who play the prisoners move to a curious choreography: the motions of morning dressing as they respect the limited space, a goose-step dance in which they hold their hands up like men creating rabbit shadows on a wall, the Twyla Tharp randomness of their busy work as they scrub down the cell, the double-time calisthenics. Coupled with this are a cappella tone poems --– the shouted calls and responses, the buzzer that indicates someone from the outside world is entering, the regimentation of stomping feet on the cement and a different sound on the gravel path, the silent beats, the garbage can lid scraped along the barbed wire fence to wake the men in the morning.
The day is placed into perspective when one prisoner (Morteza Tavakoli) has a break-down. The self-control of the other men becomes a kind of heroism in the face of the brutal negation of individuality. "I'm 34," he shouts. "Let me out of this madhouse." He is soon strait jacketed, carried out on a stretcher and replaced. A guard forces the new, raw No. 5 (Joshua Striker-Roberts) to his knees, nose to the white line, trained like a dog. "Are all my children asleep?" Asks a guard before lights out. "Yes, sir," they answer in robotic unison.
The impressive cast includes Johnson Anthony, Lewis Williams, Keshav Baggan, Gene Ardor, Antwan Ward, Jade Rothman, Satya Bhabha, Brad Burgess, Albert Lamont, John Kohan, Jeff Nash, Bradford Rosenbloom, and Brent Bradley. Original sets, costumes and lighting were designed by Julian Beck and recreated by Gary Brackett.
Author Kenneth E. Brown based "The Brig" on his two incarcerations in the U. S. Marine Corp prison during the Korean War. Judith Malina, who founded the Living Theatre in 1947 with the late Julian Beck, her husband, still has her chops after 60 years. This production was a tribute to their talent and a gift for New York.