by Willard Manus
Kenneth H. Brown's THE BRIG put the Living Theatre on the map when it was first produced Off-Broadway in 1963. The Obie-winning drama set in a Marine Corps prison during the Korean war shocked audiences into an awareness of the totalitarian underpinnings of American military justice. The production ran for two years and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, only to be suddenly locked out by the Feds on a trumped-up tax charge. Jonas Mekas and a small film crew then broke into the theatre and shot a hurried version of the play which later won a Gold Medal at the Venice Film Festival. The Living Theatre company then fled the USA and performed THE BRIG in Europe for the next four years. In April, 2007, the play was revived in New York and won three more Obies.
Time has not made THE BRIG any less relevant than it was forty-five years ago. If anything, it seems even bolder and more important today, thanks to the infamous Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo revelations.
Directed by Tom Lillard, who played Prisoner #2 in the original production, THE BRIG is an uncomfortable, even punishing experience to sit through. A dozen young unnamed prisoners are put through a typical day's paces by their "prison chasers," who treat them with sadistic scorn and brutality, not only calling them insects and maggots, but attacking them with fists, kicks and clubs for the slightest infraction of the rules. Since no prisoner can speak at any time except to a guard, there is no incidental dialogue in Brown's play, no relief from the hellish, unrelenting pressure put on the inmates to obey and conform to the dictates of their barking and snarling masters. The object of all this coercion is, of course, to break down personal identity and turn human beings into robots.
The twenty young actors in THE BRIG (five of whom came to L.A. from the N.Y. production) form a remarkable ensemble. Whether they are forced to stand at attention in front of their bunks, reading from The Guidebook for Marines, or being "broken down for a shakedown" (stripped naked and searched), or ordered to swab the decks with rags and mops, they move in unison with choreographed precision and timing. Considering how much physical and verbal abuse they must endure during the course of the play, their disciplined performances are nothing short of remarkable.
Produced by Ron Sossi for the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, THE BRIG benefits greatly from Julianne Elizabeth Eggold's cage-like set, deb Millison's costumes and Adam Blumenthal's lighting design. Brown's courageous attack on incipient American fascism has been given a splendid and memorable outing. Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. 310-477-2055 or odysseytheatre.com