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Prisoners of Commerce


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Zebra Crossing Theatre and Chameleon Productions

at Zebra Crossing Theatre

Zebra Crossing Theatre and Chameleon Productions are Uptown-based companies that place special emphasis on nontraditional casting in terms of race and gender; their current coproduction of Kenneth Brown's The Brig is about as nontraditional as you can get. Not that the play itself is in any way traditional--far from it. But this adaptation of Brown's drama opens up unusual casting possibilities by imposing an entirely new concept on the original. Though the reconceptualization works only about half the time, it's never less than interesting.

Originally produced by the radically experimental Living Theatre in New York in 1963, The Brig is a study of dehumanization and regimentation in a military prison. (Though the specific setting is a U.S. Marine brig in Japan in 1957, those details are irrelevant to the play's Kafkaesque scheme.) The play's dialogue consists entirely of public exchanges between the prisoners and their supervising officers: there are no contrived dramatic moments here, no breakout plans, no secret romances, no private vendettas to be settled. All we hear is the officers giving orders (frequently employing such choice military endearments as "maggot," "louse," and "insect") and the prisoners responding "Yes sir!"

This tightly regimented dialogue is accompanied by equally regimented patterns of movement--the prisoners' actions in response to their overseers' commands. These actions are physically tiring and emotionally demeaning, part of the brutal "rehabilitation" these prisoners must undergo for real or imagined crimes whose nature is never revealed.

By adhering to this strict formula, Brown created a play that was at once a documentarylike study of life in a military prison, an existentialist meditation on the meaninglessness of existence, and a calculated exercise in theatrical ritual. Very little "happens" in The Brig--the big events in the play are the release of one prisoner, the mental breakdown and solitary confinement of a second prisoner, and the arrival of a new prisoner to replace the one who was discharged; none of these events have much impact on the other prisoners' lives. But when presented as Brown intended, this play breaks down the audience's intellectual distance and makes them share the grueling, visceral experience of the prisoners.

This sense of participation is almost completely lost in the Zebra Crossing/Chameleon Brig. In its place, director Marlene Zuccaro and her 14-member cast (female and male, instead of the all-male cast Brown called for) provide flashes of absurd humor and an engaging, if not wholly convincing, philosophical argument. Brig '89, as it might well be called, preserves Brown's script but changes its characters and setting. The action now takes place in a large, anonymous corporate office. The prisoners have become "associates"--data processors, file clerks, secretaries, computer programmers--and the officers are now middle-management types charged with keeping the shop running more or less smoothly.

There are a few specific alterations in the dialogue--"prisoner" becomes "associate," "sir" becomes "ma'am," and letters home become company evaluation forms (censored by the boss and stripped of any critical comments)--but most of the verbal exchanges remain the same. The top manager still calls his underlings "maggots," or, contemptuously, "my family." The other managers still berate associates who happen to brush against them ("You dared touch me! Insect!"). And the associates still must ask permission to cross the white line that surrounds their enclosure. The regimented brutality remains the same, too: group showers, forced calisthenics, "field day" cleanups, and a sequence in which one associate is ordered to place a metal can over her head while another associate bangs the can with a stick.

That last scene is one of the most horrifying moments ever seen on a stage when performed as Brown originally intended. Here, like the rest of the action, it's simply funny. The comedy stems from the incongruity of watching an office manager order a worker to submit to such punishment. Similarly, a yuppie executive calling his secretary "maggot" makes us laugh by its absurdity--an absurdity reinforced by the production's use of oversize props (telephones, pencils, dollar bills) and symbols (toy cars and clubs inscribed with the words "benefits" and "pension").

Director Zuccaro and her competent, extremely well-blended ensemble intend this absurdity as a comment on the connection between the oppression of prisoners and the oppression of workers, and there is some basis for this in Brown's original play: beyond an indictment of militaristic cruelty, Brown was offering a critique of enforced conformism in society at large. Watching the extreme patterns of abusive regimentation take its toll on the prisoners, audiences found themselves examining similar, if less blatant, patterns in their own lives. But the key to Brown's theatrical strategy was his play's harrowing intensity. That is sacrificed in the current production, and without it the concept becomes just a conceit--an amusing and intriguing conceit, but a conceit nonetheless.

What finally undermines the reworked Brig is a basic dramatic problem: motivation. The characters in the original Brig were doing what they did for a very simple reason: they had no choice. They could not leave. They were prisoners. They had no rights, no recourse against the physical force used against them. By contrast, the corporate drones in Zuccaro's Brig can leave if they want--and one does at the end, in the most significant change Zuccaro has made in the text. The associates' participation in the system that oppresses them is based on their desire to make money or achieve status--a real enough motivation, but one that's far less insistent or dramatically compelling than the plight of the prisoners in the original script. (Zuccaro's casting of black women in roles originally meant for white men also leaves room for us to question the action onstage: watching a burly male manager abusively and intimately frisk three black women in a search for allegedly stolen files, you can't help but think what a hell of a lawsuit that manager would face in real life.)

The other key alteration Zuccaro imposes on the material is in her direction of the actors. Instead of hard, impassive, stone-faced prisoners, the associates are soft and expressive individuals. Their behavior is the most convincing and interesting aspect of the new Brig--although, or perhaps because, it's the most original aspect, the least connected to Brown's script. The body language with which the associates respond to their superiors' commands, the hopeful, earnest smiles they wear to lessen the intensity of their situations--these, better than any oversize pencils or status symbols, capture the sense of confinement and isolation felt by any nine-to-fiver who's ever complained that his or her job is a "prison." These performances make one wish that Zuccaro and her artistic cohorts had set out to create their own convincing work, instead of trying to distort an already existing one.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marlene Zuccaro.

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