nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 21, 2007
Gutsy alternative theatre is alive and well again on the Lower East Side as The Living Theatre inaugurates their lovely new Clinton Street home with a revival of one of their signature works, Kenneth H. Brown's 1963 play, The Brig. The timing couldn't be better. In the wake of misconduct charges at the military prison at Abu Ghraib, and similar allegations for the facility at Guantanamo Bay, The Brig feels remarkably timely. Based on the author's own incarceration in a Marine Corps brig during the Korean War, this play feels like it could be taking place both then and today. It reminds the audience with resounding force that it doesn't matter whether you're a foreign detainee or one of America's proudest: if you're on the inside, your ass is grass.
The Brig has no story, per se; it just shows us a day in the life of these imprisoned U.S. soldiers. They get up, shower and shave, exercise, have a smoke, do a little cleaning—all the usual things that many of us would do during the course of an average day. But, for these guys, things are a little different. They're under the sadistic thumb of the Warden and his three equally cruel guards, Lintz, Grace, and Tepperman. And, an average day for these prisoners would be enough to drive anyone else batty.
Instead of an alarm clock, the prisoners (who are called only by their prison number, not their names) are awakened by the sound of the guards scraping a trash can lid against the chain link fence that encloses their communal cell. They leap out of bed and get dressed in a tightly controlled frenzy. From there, it's on to the bathroom, then the exercise yard, and so forth, all the while adhering to the brig's standard method of movement: a high-stepping trot with one's elbows in, and one's fists raised near the chin. Everything in the facility is demarcated by white lines on the floor, which the prisoners must always ask permission to cross. They have to ask permission to do everything, in fact, even smoke a cigarette. If they forget or slip up, the guards gladly remind them with a punch to the stomach.
Director Judith Malina triumphs in creating a world that the audience feels it is experiencing firsthand. Without the usual conceit of a plot to help delineate the fourth wall between actor and audience, the viewer slowly becomes one of the anonymous prisoners trapped in this brutal, regimented purgatory. They endure the dehumanizing mental toll of life in the brig, as well as its physically punishing aspect, along with the prisoners: when they're not being called "maggots" by the guards, the prisoners are engaged in so much grueling physical activity that it's amazing they don't burn off half their total body weight in a day. If you're exhausted and have a headache (as I did) after watching The Brig, well, I assume that's the idea.
My hat is off to the production's almost 20-person cast for collectively delivering one of the most astounding ensemble performances I've ever seen. The way they fearlessly embrace The Brig's ritualistic anonymity and its athletic arduousness is hypnotic and awe-inspiring. The late Julian Beck and Gary Brackett's detailed set design, complete with barbed wire and gravel, invokes the kind of hopeless dread I imagine Malina and Brown are aiming for.
The Brig won't be everyone's cup of tea, but if you can handle it you'll be rewarded with a one-of-a-kind experience. I was very glad I stuck it out. Like the men who survive their tenure inside, I felt much stronger afterwards for having done so.