Chicago Theater Review: THE BRIG (Mary-Arrchie)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 19, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


A blast from the past, this 1963 curiosity from the once-living Living Theatre is a tribute to author Kenneth H. Brown’s total recall and recreation of a very ugly world. Written when Brown was a 27-year-old former U.S. Marine, The Brig is his attempt to replicate the degrading, demoralizing, and dehumanizing conditions in a military prison in Okinawa in 1957. Reconstructing a demeaning day in the lives of ten prisoners and four guards (and in only 55 pulverizing minutes!), is typical of the total immersion, environmental emphasis and, yes, nudity of avant-garde plays of the period. (Ken Kesey synthesized this anarchic abandon perfectly in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.)

But whether 1963 has all that much to say to 2013 is another matter.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of "The Brig" at Mary-Arrchie

The setting for Mary-Arrchie’s arduous revival is Jimmy Jagos’ total transformation of the Angel Island stage: It’s now a barracks/jail surrounded by barbed wire and harsh with bright lighting, hard bunk beds, latrine, chain-link punishment cages, and absolutely no privacy. Whatever the activities depicted in Jennifer Markowitz’ kinetic staging – mopping, push-ups, swabbing, chanting, running in place, holding their field manuals in front of their faces, writing censored letters home, showering in seconds, cigarette breaks, enduring a “field day” of obstacles to overcome, bed inspections, singing the “Marine Hymn” at full volume – the desired result is the same: The utter humiliation of inmates known only by their numbers. “Break down for a shakedown” is the order of the day, along with “Never apologize” and be sure to ask for permission to cross the white lines.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of "The Brig" at Mary-Arrchie

The only deviation from this iron discipline and soul-shrinking routine is when Prisoner Six (Chuck Brickhouse) snaps and demands to be addressed by his name – although he’s quickly beaten into submission. Otherwise it’s sadism as usual until you feel you’re part of the punishment.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of "The Brig" at Mary-Arrchie

It’s an exhausting and brutalizing tour-de-force for these 14 actors and hardly more comforting to an audience forced to witness abuses it can’t redeem. The mute helplessness of these “maggots” may well reflect whatever guilt or revenge made the author clone the crime for the stage. Ironically, if you’ve seen Full Metal Jacket, the tortures inflicted on these cellmates are hardly less severe than basic training itself, where survival is seemingly rooted in unquestioning obedience. (Reaching a bit further, it’s not all that unlike what non-Equity actors put up with in the course of an unpaid year of thespian aspirations.)

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of "The Brig" at Mary-Arrchie

The closest dramatic parallel is, oddly, Miss Margarida’s Way, where the audience is reduced to pupils to be punished in an elementary school. It was the South American author’s way of showing how education wears and dumbs down the electorate, thus creating the kind of robotic docility that makes juntas possible.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of "The Brig" at Mary-Arrchie

The Brig provides no context to its cruelty, no “before” or “after” to lives we see crushed into servility. It’s exasperatingly open-ended and half-baked, leaving it to the literally captive audience to see it as an anti-army protest play, a metaphor for capitalist conformity, aerobics for actors (these guys will be muscular marvels by the end of the run), or an empty exercise in sadomasochistic overkill. Though an amazing showcase for the stamina of the inexhaustible actors who perform it, it offers no answers – which would be more pardonable if it at least raised some questions. You’ll be happier to leave this brig than you’ll be to endure it.

photos by Ashley Rose

The Brig
Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company at Angel Island
scheduled to end on May 26, 2013
for tickets, visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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