In-your-face military drama doesn’t allow you to be “at ease”
|Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents|
Review by John Olson
This play will celebrate its 50th anniversary in just a few weeks, and while it might not feel as innovative as it must have been back in 1963, The Brig still stretches our preconceptions of what theatre is and can do. Kenneth H. Brown’s play, depicting one day in a U.S. Marine military prison, has only the goal of showing us the daily routine of oppression in such a place. There’s no plot – and virtually no characters. The prisoners are robbed of all their individuality. They’re addressed by numbers rather than names, forbidden to speak to each other, allowed to say little more than “yes sir” and “no sir” to the jailers and forced to move only in unison with each other. The officer/jailers have names, but with the exception of just a few stretches of dialogue these characters are in turn playing the roles of tormentors rather than showing anything of themselves.
What we see is the rigid, abusive routine of the life inside “The Brig.” When the prisoners move – always in a high stepping march with their arms at their sides, they must ask permission to move across the white lines demarking various zones of the prison – and punished with a punch in the gut if they accidentally sneak over the line. Their day consists of make work projects, meal times, a half hour to write one-page letters home (if they’re lucky). They’re forced to wash, eat and shower together, all at the appointed times. Brown – who reportedly wrote the play based on his experience as a prisoner for 30 days in such a camp after going AWOL from the Marines – makes no judgment on these practices. Since we are told nothing of the characters backstories – we have no idea what were their offenses – it’s difficult to assess if the punishment fits the crime. These particular prisoners are quite compliant with the jailers, so one might presume the imprisoned soldiers simply had difficulty adjusting to the rigors of Marine life and committed petty infractions, but that’s just my interpretation.
Director Jennifer Markowitz and her team place the audience in exceedingly close proximity to the action, with seating areas of various sizes surrounding the central playing area. I happened to be seated behind a chain link fence and gate – which was starting to feel claustrophobic enough even before one of the soldiers was thrown into “solitary” confinement in it, just a foot or two away from me. Two audience members were chosen to sit on stage throughout the play. In Jimmy Jagos’ environmental scenic design, the entire room is made to look like a military prison, with green walls, bare bulb military ceiling lights, and Spartan bunk beds and office furniture. Stefin Steberl’s costumes and Arianna Soloway’s props add to the authenticity.
Markowitz, with the help of Marine consultant Captain Frank Albi, leads her all-male cast to an ensemble performance that’s executed with great precision. The guys look and move like Marines and, yes, the realism does involve full-frontal nudity when the prisoners line up for their communal nightly shower. And given that the prisoners aren’t allowed to show any individuality, it would the opposite of praise to single any of them out – with the exception of some fine moments from Chris Brickhouse as a prisoner who breaks down and protests his treatment. As the guards, Adam Soule is all-business, Mark Madison particularly nasty and Jacob Alexander sadistic. G. Riley Mills struggles a bit to find The Warden’s center – he seems to be pushing too hard to be a tough guy and there’s not the same sort of menace we associate with other characters we’ve seen who are in that position of power.
It’s logical to approach this piece with an expectation of getting into the minds of the prisoners and seeing their interactions. We’ve seen that sort of thing before with the likes of “The Shawshank Redemption”, “The Green Mile” and the TV series “Oz”. That’s not what this, nor what it wants to be. It’s a presumably realistic depiction of what goes on inside a military prison – no more, no less. It won’t be for everyone, but its complete commitment to in-your-face realism and total lack of pretension or artiness makes this production of the fifty-year-old play feel fresh and exciting.
The Brig continues through May 26th at Angel Island Theater, 735 W. Sheridan (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 7pm. Tickets are $15-$25, and are available by phone (773.871.0442) or online through TicketWeb.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at MaryArrchie.com. (Running time: 1 hour without intermission)
G. Riley Mills (The Warden), Jacob Alexander (Pfc. Tepperman), Adam Soule (Cpl. Grace), Mark Madison (Pfc. Lintz), Mike Newquist (Prisoner One), Connor McNamara (Prisoner Two), Aaron Norman (Prisoner Three), Alex Seeley (Prisoner Four), Nick Mikula (Prisoner Five[.1]), Eric Lindahl (Prisoner Five [.2]), Chris Brickhouse (Prisoner Six), Alex Levin (Prisoner Seven), Ryan McDaniel (Prisoner Eight), Joel Reitsma (Prisoner Nine).
behind the scenes
Jennifer Markowitz (director), Jimmy Jagos (set), Tyler Garlock (lighting), Stefin Steberl (costumes), Arianna Soloway (props master), Scott Cummins (fight choreography), Bill Daniel (fight assistant), Capt. Frank Albi (USMC consultant, boot camp instructor), Adam Soule (drill instructor, fight captain), Mary Patchell (stage manager), Kevin Oliver-Krohn (asst. stage manager), Art Parker (tech director), Zoe Claster (asst. director), Anna Rose li-Epstein (production assistant), Ashley Rose (photos)