Monday, November 25, 2013

REVIEWED: Good Person of Szechwan

The Public Theater presents the Foundry Theater presents Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan!

Probably one of my favorite plays ever, I was looking forward to getting to see this Brecht piece of verfremdungseffekt (I get 2 points from DJ Hopkins for spelling this correctly without looking it up, I believe) with Taylor Mac performing the dual role of Shen Te and Shui Ta. Mac, who identifies as neither "he" nor "she" (asking in bio to be classified under the gender pronoun "judy") is a pretty inspired choice: a male-looking, gender-neutral performer, playing at first a female prostitute, who soon disguises herself as her brutal and pragmatic cousin, Shui Ta.

Every part of the production design and concept at first seems cobbled together from discordant pieces, but it all works. The people of Szechwan are more caricature than character, references feel both anachronistic and timeless, the gods are dressed from one era while the music feels drawn from another entirely. Still, it all feels like the spirit of Brecht: instantly human and yet not, which makes us feel both at home and abroad, sympathetic and not.
Mac does a wonderful job bringing this very complex character of Shen Te to life. Shen Te is not faultless, but she is not weak, and this point becomes especially poignant when you remember she and Shui Ta are the same person. (Brecht's running idea seems to be that human goodness and evil exist in everyone, but the play's essential thesis is that perhaps we are capable of change, and restructuring the world.)

For those unfamiliar with the play, the gods (Vinie Burrows, Mia Katigbak, and Mary Shultz) arrive to find good people on Earth who still follow the rules of being good and moral. They can't list the water seller (David Turner), because of his false-bottom cup. And most of the rest of the province leans toward the despicable: the proprietor Mrs. Mi Tzu (Lisa Kron) is bitter, Shen Te's former landlords (Brooke Ishibashi and Paul Juhn) are manipulative and conniving, and the Carpenter (Darryl Winslow) and Mrs. Shin (Kate Benson), who owned the storefront before Shen Te buys it, are both more than ready to take advantage of the magnanimous Shen Te. The desire to continue helping everyone spreads Shen Te thin, and her cousin Shui Ta, who is more business-minded and more interested in Shen Te's own well-being, arrives on the scene to clean up her messes.
Things get even more complicated when Shen Te saves an unemployed pilot who is going to kill himself. Yang Sun (Clifton Duncan) uses Shen Te to get a job but seems to have no plans of taking care of her despite proclaiming love for her multiple times over the show.
When Shui Ta is brought to testify before the judges (the gods in thinly veiled disguises) for the supposed murder of their "good person", he reveals that he is a she, and that she is also pregnant, and has proven incapable of living both good (for others) and well (for oneself). But the gods, having already found their good person, leave without further aid, telling her only to continue to do well.

It's the play's ending that is the most jarring. As it's stated, there is no happy ending. The gods leave, the world remains unchanged, and Shen Te, paralyzed with fear and despair, can only plead to the audience with a single, breathless, "help."
The actors then break character, and a final, rhyming monologue is delivered directly to close the play. The real final plea is that there "must be happy endings for good people. Must. Must. Must."

Brecht, often inaccurately, is accused of heavy-handed moral objectivism, but he's surprisingly subtle. Epic Theatre was the essential basis of a lot of performance art: to highlight social hypocrisy, to spotlight exploitation, and to leave the audiences in a state of self-reflection. It is, after all, our world, we are the only ones with the power to change it, but it can be a forgotten truth because of how deep the system goes, and just how aged the machine is.

That said, there is still an amazing emotional reaction to Shen Te. I can't help but identify with a put-upon character, a thankless hero, however faulted. Taylor Mac, judy's, Shen Te is quite the force to be reckoned with, particularly the musical climax of the first act: "You've Got To Make a Change," where judy transforms, onstage for the first time, from Shen Te into Shui Ta. It's strong, powerful, a great piece of performance, and quite moving.

All the excellent music is provided by a quirky, cool band The Lisps (Eric Farber, Ben Simon, Lorenzo Wolff, and Sammy Tunis) and like I said of the whole production, it's both comforting and disconcerting: with the easy, relaxing sound of American Folk (think O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and the abrupt, sudden cacophony of Chinese and Japanese theatre (a lot of punctuated percussion and plucked strings). It doesn't make sense, but it all works.

Same with the set, lighting, sound, and costume design (Matt Saunders, Tyler Micoleau, Brandon Wolcott, and Clint Ramos respectively). They're a mish-mash of pieces, but they all come together. I think the essential point of any Brecht is how to best tell the story. How do we best engage the audience and keep this piece moving? Good Person's no slouch, at 2 and 1/2 hours, and there has to be a lot of interesting pieces to keep it afloat and the audience engaged. All the actors play multiple parts: Kron also plays Yang Sun's overbearing mother, Winslow doubles as a cop, Juhm is also a barber later on, and even Duncan gets in a comic turn as Grandpa (which is good, because Yang Sun is easily the most despicable of all the characters), and the set is static, but lighting and interesting uses of pieced-together material makes it extremely cool to look at. Shen Te/Shui Ta's costumes in particular are lovely.

I was in this show in college. I loved it then, and I love it now. Brecht is easily the most misunderstood of all of theatre's writing contributors and Foundry's Good Person highlights exactly why he is so important: it's his urgency, his complexity, subtlety, comedy, and ultimately humanity. The one sad part is that it only runs til December 8th.
(There's me on the right.)