Monday, December 9, 2013

Mixed Blessing: Bertolt Brecht's Good Person of Szechwan

                                       (photo by Pavel Antonov)
The Foundry Theatre’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan – which began at LaMama last winter and was picked up for a run at the Public – is clever and tedious by turns. It begins promisingly, with The Lisps, a fine bluegrass quartet, performing a series of ballads before they take their places as the show’s back-up band. (I was especially struck by Eric Farber, who plays “found-percussion and contraptions,” a series of items housed in a suitcase, and whose wildly animated face seems to carry its own light.) The set by Matt Saunders is a series of small box houses built on steps under wooden cut-out clouds; Clint Ramos’s costumes are in an entertaining patchwork of styles. And for a while Lear DeBessonet’s staging keeps you alert and expectant. For instance, when Wang the Waterseller (David Turner) finds shelter for the visiting Gods (Vinie Burrows, Mia Katigbak and Mary Shultz: one black, one Asian, one white) at the home of the local prostitute, Shen Te (Taylor Mac), they fit puppet versions of themselves into the model house while they mime sleeping as they stand upstage of it. At moments like this the production feels collegiate in a good sense – pared-down, imaginative and playful.

But you need a lot of visual invention to pull off this play (which the Foundry actors are performing in the John Willett translation). DeBessonet’s is limited, and the running time is nearly three hours. Good Person is a brilliant play, but like most of Brecht it’s overwritten and repetitive, since he never trusted his audience to get the point unless he slammed it home. A company that mounts even his best work without judicious cutting isn’t doing him any favors; his dialogue isn’t exactly Shakespeare – it’s a collage of comic sketches and lectures unified by his distinctive brand of political and social irony and elevated by his acute sense of theatricality. (And he throws in songs, which C├ęsar Alvarez has set to music for this version.) Good Person is a fable with an exotic setting, a Chinese village, and a social message. The Gods are on a quest for one good person; they find her in Shen Te, who doesn’t tell them at first that she’s a whore. But her goodness puts her at risk of starvation. She buys a tobacco shop, but her parasitical friends and relatives take advantage of her, convincing her to put them up gratis, and when she falls in love with a pilot, Yang Sun (Clifton Duncan), he and his mother (the playwright Lisa Kron) join the troop of acquaintances who are bleeding her dry. Her only defense is to fabricate a pragmatic – that is, ruthless – cousin named Shui Ta, whom she impersonates in drag whenever she’s backed against a wall. He does the dirty work (like kicking out the squatters) that she doesn’t have the heart for. Brecht’s point, of course, is that you can’t survive in this world unless you’re eminently practical and prepared to bury your heart. The Gods, who claim that they never meddle in economics, are completely unhelpful. At the end of the play Brecht stages an ingenious reversal of a deux ex machina: while Shen Te begs them to find some way to aid poor, struggling humankind, they merely smile benevolently at her as they fly up to heaven, their search rewarded.

(photo by Pavel Antonov)
Mac is a male actor with a shaved head playing a woman playing a man, but he’s smart enough not to underscore the drag element. He gives a committed performance in a melodramatic style, and though you wish he had a wider vocal range, he’s very impressive. Duncan and Turner are both good – Duncan also has a terrific singing voice with a gospel swing – and the New York-Jewish mother shtick Kron applies to the role of Mrs. Yang is funny. (She’s less successful as the landlady, Mrs. Mi Tzu; her only acting choice there is nasality.) But the rest of the acting is awfully amateurish, and it wears you down. Brecht often seems to supply an excuse for sloppy, over-the-top acting, though I’d say that his epic theatre esthetic requires just the opposite: precision and professionalism. Still, this Good Person has its moments, and you don’t get many chances to see the play performed; I haven’t encountered a performance of it in thirty years, and the last one I came across was a college production when I was in graduate school. Everyone recognizes Brecht as an important force in twentieth-century theatre, but except for The Threepenny Opera you’re more likely to find him in a college setting. It’s gratifying to find a company willing to mount one of his best plays, though the results are decidedly mixed.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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