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The Brig

The Living Theatre's revival of Kenneth Brown's 1963 anti-military play is a must-see event.

By New York City
Albert Lamont, Jeff Nash, Isaac Scranton, and John Kohan
in The Brig
(© John Ranard)
Albert Lamont, Jeff Nash, Isaac Scranton, and John Kohan
in The Brig
(© John Ranard)
Unless you were there in 1963 when The Brig was first produced by the Living Theatre, Kenneth H. Brown's play about the imprisonment of errant marines is like nothing you have ever seen. Being unique doesn't automatically qualify a theatrical event as must-see; but this one is.

Stripped down to something akin to a documentary about military prisons that would never be made -- certainly not by any branch of the Armed Forces looking to attract recruits -- The Brig is as unflinching an account of execrable conditions as you might expect to be confronted with. Moreover, it's from someone who endured the dehumanizing experience during the Korean War.

What Brown decided was necessary for the world to see was man's inhumanity to man under obviously condoned -- and even encouraged -- conditions. From there, he left audiences free to draw conclusions about the effects on the personnel who not only underwent the often brutal routine, but also on those trained to police it.

Brown starts his remembrance of horrors past in the moments just before a warden and three guards roust 10 inmates out of their racks by banging a garbage-can lid on the frames of their double-decker beds. Then, he details the ensuing daily drill. The incarcerated men are never allowed to speak except when responding to orders or questions. Their dialogue consists of terse utterances like "Sir, yes, sir" or requests to cross the white lines placed at intervals on the threshold of the chain-link cage in which they're bedded and in the area immediately surrounding it.

Prisoners must always face front, and move on the double with arms to the side and bent upward at the elbow. When otherwise unoccupied, they stand holding open training manuals in front of their faces. If they provoke their keepers through infringements real or imagined, they're punched in the solar plexus.

Since the purpose of The Brig is to illustrate character breakdown, character development is not a factor in the play. Neither are other dramatic staples like increasing conflict. The Marines' regimen is so organized that its depiction takes on the dimensions of a performance piece or dance. Yet, the play remains shockingly theatrical.

True, Brown eventually overdoes it, taking two acts to make the point he convincingly makes by the end of act one. He undoubtedly felt that since he wanted to show what prisoners of his era suffered during their waking hours, he needed to be comprehensive. He includes the (off-stage) group toilet visits and shower-and-shave trips, as well as Field Day, where the men clean their chain-link-fence environment (which Gary Brackett has adapted from the original set). Curiously, Brown doesn't include any meals. Surely, the Marine Corps couldn't jettison those.

The Brig is effective in large part because of the discipline required from the cast; who are directed by Living Theatre doyenne Judith Malina and Steven Ben Israel (who's credited with "ensemble training"). While the actors-as-prisoners execute their rigorous paces, you're thinking how amazing these performers are. You're also wondering where they pull their stamina from and why on earth they put themselves though this.

But they do -- and every one of them deserves plaudits: Antwan Ward, Jade Rothman, Brent Bradley, Brad Burgess, Morteza Tavakoll, Albert Lamont, John Kohan, Jeff Nash, Isaac Scranton, Bradford Rosenbloom, and Joshua Striker-Roberts. The warden and guards, equally strong though not required to be synchronized, are Gene Ardor, Kesh Baggan, Louis Williams, and Johnson Anthony.

Malina, who established the Living Theatre 60 years ago with her now-late husband Julian Beck, is presenting The Brig in the company's new Lower East Side venue. You needn't be a rocket scientist to realize she's inaugurating the space with this particular play because of its unmissable relevance to the conditions that led to Iraq-related abominations like the Abu Ghraib calamity. The military philosophy that playwright Brown calumniated over 40 years ago continues; and so Malina clearly believes the always-politicized Living Theatre must still set its sights on frightening targets. Once again, her aim is true.


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