The Good Person of Szechwan
So, a Bertolt Brecht play can actually be fun! Brecht certainly would have considered himself righteous, yet he observed that “Righteous people have no sense of humor,” suggesting that fun would be an unlikely outcome from one of his typically didactic plays. Of course, the author was a bundle of contradictions, also saying that “Theatre that cannot be laughed in is theatre to be laughed at.” Clearly, Brecht’s complexity yields particularly fertile ground for varied interpretation of his work.
Brecht’s original intended humor in his plays may be lost here and now because it is so context bound – in Germanic societies during the rise of the Nazis to power. However, with a translation from German by Wendy Arons into an American vernacular; a focused adaptation by Tony Kushner; and colorful and energetic direction by Eric Ting, Cal Shakes’ production of The Good Person of Szechwan aligns the narrative and production elements to the audience at hand. The result tops the chart on the entertainment dimension while retaining its poignant socio-political disposition.
The thrust of the story line begins with Shen Te, a poor prostitute who comes into enough of a bankroll to open a tobacco shop. Driven by the notion of doing good, she comes to the aid of anyone in distress. But soon, this “Angel of the Outskirts” finds that her beneficiaries become leeches, and her business suffers. So, what to do? Her solution is to disguise herself, when needed, as a fictitious male cousin, Shui Ta, who would enforce harsh measures upon the hangers-on, thus retaining Shen Te’s reputation for goodness while putting her financial house in order. Or, anyway, that’s the plan.
The play’s central theme is about goodness, something that would seem intuitively straight forward, but the playwright examines the concept from many sides, resulting in more questions than answers. As an illustration of the situation-specific nature of goodness, Shen Te asks “How can I stay good when everything is so expensive?” Ergo, is there an affordability factor about good deeds? Are great philanthropists good people when they suffer little sacrifice in making their great contributions? Are they as good as poor people who share what little they have?
Another aspect of goodness concerns the effect on the beneficiaries of the largesse, and here comes another complexity. As noted, those who benefited from Shen Te’s generosity were unappreciative. Further, one character who was disparaging and dishonest when helped by Shen Te, became motivated and effective when under the harsh hand of Shui Ta. As a Marxist whose philosophy permeates his work, it is surprising that Brecht’s recipients of distributed wealth fail to benefit from the gesture, and that in the case of one character, tough love produces better results than the socialist practice had.
These weighty issues are explored in an almost farcical, comic-book like tableau, which director Ting deftly exploits to mine the comedy, expertly using rhythms of speech, factory work, and Chinese percussion to enhance the effects. Silly characters wearing silly clothes (well costumed by Ulises Alcala) do silly things. By virtue of her improved station in life, Shen Te becomes the lynchpin to this band of misfits, even while she is in constant turmoil herself. Francesca Fernandez McKenzie shines brightly as the charming, well-intended but badly-oriented heroine, as well as her high-stepping, dream-smashing alter ego cousin. Cast performances excel throughout, but the one other that deserves particular recognition is Lance Gardner as Wang, the Water-Seller.
The quality of production values equals the acting. Michael Locker’s stage is dominated by the box-light letters GOOD. Otherwise, moveable set elements represent venues aptly. Jiyoun Chang’s lighting and Brendan Aanes sound provide depth and texture to the overall stage effect of this provocative piece. In sum, this is a well-crafted, accessible, and enjoyable production of an important theatrical work.
The Good Person of Szechwan by Bertolt Brecht is produced by California Shakespeare Theater and plays at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, CA through July 21, 2019.