With this production, directed by Living Theater founder Judith Malina, you can see what audiences and authorities were reacting to. In a traditional sense, "The Brig" isn’t quite a play. There’s no plot, no characters, and the exposition comes in the last scene instead of the first. The cunningly constructed show takes place during one day in a United States Marine prison (the setting is Yokohama, March 5, 1957, although that’s not mentioned). From reveille to bed-down, 10 Marines are drilled through their day, their every move directed with balletic precision by the four MPs on duty. And any deviation—even crossing a white line without permission—is punished with verbal degradation and physical abuse.
It’s a finely tuned drama, like watching a cuckoo clock designed by Kafka. The prisoners are addressed only by their number and aren’t allowed to walk more than a few feet before stopping at one of those white lines—a third of the script seems to be, "Sir, permission to cross the white line, sir!" The treatment is inhuman, and watching it is horrifying. The dramatic climax comes when one man goes stir-crazy and gibbers, "My name isn’t Six, it’s James Turner!" He’s thrown in a straightjacket and led out to "freedom."
The script, by Kenneth Brown, is amazingly trim and without a superfluous word. One effect of this is to underscore how scripted the prisoners’ lives are. And of course, the guards have only so much freedom to respond as well: Although they can improvise insults, they’re regulated by the order they must keep as much as the prisoners are. Like the cast itself, the wardens and prisoners are part of one interlocking system, and any misstep will cause that system to seize up.
The master drill sergeant is, of course, Malina herself. She’s trained her 17-member cast to maneuver around the small stage without stepping a foot out of place. And she’s gained the trust of these men, pushing them to exert themselves like no other cast (except maybe the grueling thrice-daily Christmas regime of the Rockettes). These men must march in place, smoke without hands, do 20 push-ups and perform a marvelous set piece that has them mop and dry the entire stage in 15 minutes. It’s mesmerizing to watch, and sickening to behold.
Like all great theater, "The Brig" shows instead of tells about the world around us, then allows us to draw our own conclusions. We never learn what the 10 prisoners have done, but that’s part of the show’s guile: It doesn’t matter. No person should be treated as inhumanely as this, no matter what crime they’ve committed. And yet, of course, it’s happening routinely and infamously: not just to enemy combatants being held in Guantanamo, but to disobedient soldiers in Iraq and even to American criminals in high-security prisons. "The Brig" is one of the most radical shows out there, both in structure and in theme. It finishes its tour of duty at the end of September, and it’s not to be missed.