Circuses all across the globe pride themselves in having something unmatched by other circuses. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey describe themselves as “The Greatest Show on Earth!” Cirque du Soleil: La Nouba is called “A Boundless and Festive Journey of the Imagination.” Describing Director Brian Evans’ play for the Ohio University School of Theater, ‘Man Equals Man’ is more of a dark circus where one wouldn’t go to laugh. The play, written by Bertolt Brecht in 1926, wasn’t originally intended to have sinister clowns running a muck onstage. However, with any School of Theater production, it needs to have a slant that no one has ever seen before.
With a set that that has plenty tricks and turns and consists of bright primary colors that could make Ringling Bros. jealous, it’s enough to make any audience member feel like they’re under the big top, just waiting for the ringleader to come out and announce the show has begun. An exaggerated carnival light sits above the stage glowing “MAN = MAN” throughout the show reminding the audience of the impending story they’ve come to witness.
Having a circus set isn’t enough for this new twist of storytelling. All of the characters wear cakey clown makeup covering every inch of the face; legs are clad with vibrant-colored tights; and even the guns of the soldiers are adorned with stripes and little clown heads emphasizing to this new slant. Having the cast dressed as clowns symbolizes Brecht’s idea of losing individualism and identity: by the cast having the same look throughout the play, it is easy to get lost when looking for an individual. Also, it is easy to comprehend how they function solely as a group; with individual thought frowned upon, and identity is based on where you belong in the group. Brilliantly constructed, the costumes these clowns adorn make you feel as though you’re truly about to watch a circus rather than see this somber tale.
Brecht’s tale consists of a man, Galy Gay (Ed Madson), who loses his individuality along the way. Gay runs into a group of British soldiers, Polly (Drew O’Bryan), Uriah (Eric Lynch) and Jesse (Justine Blocksom), who are looking to replace the fourth member of their troupe. Gay embodies the clown persona by stumbling around stage with his large, clunky shoes and being the “every man” who doesn’t have much of a memorable personality, making it easy for him to lose his identity. By running into these soldiers, Gay is given the chance to recreate himself by becoming their missing comrade, Jip (the real Jip is played by Zach Kopciak).
While the soldiers are trying to perfect their plan of having Gay represent Jip during roll call, the Widow Begbick (Heather Petersen) appears enchanting the tired soldiers with cigars and beer. Begbick entrances the soldiers with her power to relieve them from the hectic world of war. Not only does she entrance the soldiers, she captivates the Sargent, Bloody Five (JP Politz), and helps lure him away from his soldiers so he doesn’t realize the real Jip has gone missing.
This is where the plot twists take one too many turns leaving audiences asking, “What just happened?”. Stuffed full with monologues and asides, ‘Man’ takes the absurdity of the circus too far when the soldiers make Gay give up his life as himself and permanently become Jip. With constant chants of “one equals no one” and “one man is like another; man equals man” the audience learns of Brecht’s twisted idea of the soldiers tricking Gay into becoming Jip. These chants are foreshadowing Gay’s loss of identity. By saying “man equals man,” it is evident that no one truly cares for Jip or Gay; the soldiers are just looking for a replacement to cover their own asses. This idea is reiterated when the Widow Begbick takes center stage and says, “Brecht wants you to feel the slithering beneath your feet” when Gay loses his identity. The audience can feel this slithering feeling when Gay’s loss of identity is complete: Gay tosses aside his clunky clown shoes and trades them in for the skuffed-up boots that once belonged to Jip.
With a plot that has just as many twists as a labyrinth, it is easy to get lost in Brecht’s play of identity and easy substitution. However, OU’s School of Theater was able to take the theme one step further by creating an identity of clowns rather than a basic motif. The cast is able to act as a group rather than separate, reinstating the loss of individuality. Evans’ vision of an impressive circus set and clown costumes were able to create the circus vibe for the audience. ‘Man’ leaves audiences wondering is a man’s life really that interchangeable with another’s?