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Finally, an Arena Stage production to get excited about. It’s been some time—what, three years?—since that brutal Streetcar, since that mad Hungarian director scraped away the surface softness of Tennessee Williams’ humid prose to find the concrete angel at Blanche Dubois’ core. Now comes one of his compatriots with a smartly theatrical reading of an early Bertolt Brecht play, and so clear and present are the dangers it decries that it might have been created as a disgusted, despairing response to the very now state of our very own union. Huzzah, dammit, and bravo to everybody involved with it.
Brecht was postmodern before everyone else got around to being modern, steeped in irony and cynicism even as a schoolboy, so it’s no surprise that A Man’s a Man should look askance at authority. Look closer, though: What this raucous black comedy really turns its skeptical eye on are the social forces that conspire to destroy our individuality. Written between world wars, A Man’s a Man tracks the demise—no, not the actual demise, merely the utter dehumanization—of a simple dockworker who leaves home one morning to buy a fish for dinner, only to lose everything to the worldly predators he encounters on the road.
There are capitalism and consumerism, as embodied by the widow who uses her womanhood to convince him that what he really wants to eat isn’t a fish, but a cucumber, which she happens to have for sale at precisely the sum he has in his pocket. There are colonialism and militarism, in the threefold person of British Army soldiers who dupe him into standing in for an AWOL drunkard at roll call—then realize that they’ve got to keep the con going indefinitely, even as war looms and their former comrade returns. And there are the dockworker’s own impulses, both selfish and conformist: Even Brecht’s innocents aren’t entirely free of man’s tendency toward inhumanity, and this play’s hapless hero, who’ll put his goals on hold at the sight of a beer bottle or the thought of a profitable deal, is no exception.
In the hands of director Enikó« Eszenyi, the playwright’s near-reflexive cynicism burns like fresh scorn, and his arsenal of audience-alienation tricks—the devices he uses to break dramatic tension and remind viewers of theater’s artifice, so commonly used in contemporary drama that they seem almost naturalistic nowadays—are deployed deftly and unapologetically: This is political theater, after all, and the more often the audience connects the play’s concerns to what’s happening in real-world Washington, the better. Stylized costumes (by Ilona Somogyi) and makeup give the whole business a vaguely commedia feel. Nancy Schertler’s lighting swings from flat and hot to hauntingly stark to downright blue-black gorgeous. The band (David Maddox and Dwayne Nitz) makes slick work of jokes both musical and physical, emerging from the pit now and again to swell the ranks of the soldiers. And half the time, Valerie Leonard’s Widow Begbick doesn’t so much address the audience as make a vaguely mocking comment in the direction of a hostile universe; she’s the collective mutter we all make under our breaths.
Leonard’s terrific, all dark music and contemptuous laughter and sensual threat, impossible to look away from in a shiveringly seductive sequence involving a rainstorm and a song and a sort of sleight-of-hand striptease. Those scheming soldiers (James Ludwig, David Fendig, and especially Michael Hogan) do jittery, manic, scary-comic work, too: The laughs they inspire come with an undertone of unease. And watch ’em snooker Zachary Knower’s sweetly credulous hero with an efficient, expressive dumb-show involving a nonexistent elephant and a thoroughly illegal auction: You’ll suddenly realize you’ve all but seen the beast, too.
And you’ll wonder, uneasily and maybe a little angrily, how many elephants you’ve bought in the last year or two—and whether you’re quite the same person you were before we ourselves went marching off to war. If smart, cynical, politically savvy theater gets your blood going, now’s the time to head for Arena Stage. And tell ’em why you came—because you can bet a good chunk of their subscribers are headed the other way.
A three-hour 17th-century Spanish farce—in Spanish, watched from an uncomfortable chair—isn’t anybody’s idea of a swingin’ Saturday night, so imagine how surprising it is to get to the end of Gala Hispanic Theatre’s La Dama Duende and realize you’ve been charmed. It’s not that the evening zips along, exactly, but the ensemble’s awfully ingratiating, and there’s something to be said for a production that’s not afraid to ask a creaky old show to get up and dance.
Dance this Dama does, too: Director Hugo Medrano moves the action from 1620s Madrid to the Roaring ’20s, and (with an assist from Charleston-mad choreographer Lourdes P. Elías) leads off each act with a musical number that says a little something about what’s about to happen. The conceit, to say nothing of Alessandra D’Ovidio’s exuberant period costumes, adds just the right dose of whimsy to an evening that could easily feel too brittle.
The English translation, by James Nelson Navoa, loses some of the music in a text that has considerable swing of its own, or at least it does as delivered by Laura Van Druff’s team of simultaneous audio interpreters, who frequently seem to be rushing to keep up with what’s happening on stage. But then they’ve been handed a tall order: Pedro Calderón de la Barca was one of Spain’s golden-age playwrights, a Madrileño Shakespeare whose more serious work includes the mournful, hypnotic La Vida es Sueño, and even this airy pastry of a play—a comic napoleon layered with secret doors, mistaken identities, and unlikely coincidences—leans literary. Dama’s lovers speak in high-flown metaphor about dark and dawn, servants drop casual allusions to classical myth, and everybody traffics in wordplay and double-entendre.
Happily, Hugo Medrano’s cast is strong enough that a substantial sense of the text’s richness comes through. Menchu Esteban, the dervish who put most of the giddy spin on Gala’s Divorciadas, Evangélicas, y Vegetarianas last fall, proves priceless once again as the trickster widow—the titular “phantom lady”—whose romantic restlessness sparks most of the plot’s manifold misunderstandings. (Duels! Schemes! Deceptions!) Johnathan Dwayne and Juan Sell make her overprotective brothers suavely hotheaded and Mittyishly middle-aged, respectively, and if Oscar Ceville looks a little ridiculous in the military getup D’Ovidio initially provides for him, he softens his punctiliously well-mannered character enough to be convincingly seductive once he’s changed to white tie and tails later on. Lucrecia Basualdo and Luis Simón are the straight-outta-commedia servants who assist their masters’ schemes when they’re not fouling them up; if Simón tends to mug and overplay, it must be said he had most of the opening-night audience eating out of his hand.
For all the clowning, Gala’s core audience will probably get the most out of the play, which is ultimately a fairly patrician thing, concerned with social strictures and honor codes and esoteric behavioral tropes rooted in a very specific—and very aristocratic—Spanish milieu. All the more pleasantly surprising, then, to find that it plays so sweetly, even if you haven’t got a clue about such things going in. CP