In 1969, the Odyssey Theater Ensemble’s presentation of Bertolt Brecht’s early play “A Man’s a Man” began the company’s extraordinary, award-winning run as one of the most consistently excellent theater groups in Los Angeles. Now, almost 40 years later, the Odyssey is doing a new production of the show. Unfortunately, lightning hasn’t struck twice. Although a great deal of talent is at work here, it rarely coheres into successful theater. The new production’s pacing is arrhythmic, most of the comedic moments don’t connect, and the lead performance is surprisingly colorless and uneven.
The story is set in Brecht’s deliberately anachronistic “dream of India,” wherein a machine-gun squad of British soldiers with Aussie accents decides to rob a Chinese temple for money to keep itself stocked with alcohol. After the pagoda has been ransacked, team leader Uria (Austin Hebert) has to hide one of his men, Jip (Cary Thompson), who has been disfigured in a way that will clearly connect the squad to the crime. A new fourth soldier is needed to convince the commander, Bloody Five (Will Kepper), that nothing is amiss, so to this end the men work to brainwash local man Galy Gay (Beth Hogan) into believing he really is Jip.
The usually reliable Hogan is miscast as the malleable Galy Gay, making the character such a bland blank slate that his metamorphosis feels neither tragic nor compelling. Hogan delivers some emotion in an act two interrogation sequence, demonstrating the poor man’s fear and confusion, but overall, she simply isn’t believable in the role. Diana Cignoni, however, is sardonic perfection as local madam Widow Begbick, whose slinky sexuality barely masks her overriding desire to make money.
Kepper provides blustery amusement as the easily distracted Bloody Five, but the character’s Scots accent sometimes proves impenetrable. Hebert is coolly efficient as the manipulative Uria and gets good support from Brad C. Light, Eric Losoya and Thompson as the more emotional members of the machine-gun squad. Finally, Nina Sallinen gives an expertly stylized and humorous perf as the Chinese caricature Sexton, sweetly asking for (and getting) the audience’s jewelry.
Ron Sossi’s staging often seems confusingly chaotic, with characters running around and yelling over each other, but certain moments work quite well, such as the cramped movement of all the actors on a train, or the anxiety-accentuating flute runs accompanying the interrogation scene. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of the nontraditional casting of a woman as Galy Gay, but in this case it adds nothing to the production and qualifies as an unnecessary distraction. Janne Larsen’s canteen/train set is simple and effective, but the temple set seems merely rudimentary. Michelle Toh’s original music livens up the proceedings, but Brecht’s lyrics often get lost in the cast’s delivery.