Good Person of Szechwan by Bertolt Brecht; translation by John Willett. Directed by Lear deBessonet; dramaturgy by Anne Erbe; choreography by Danny Mefford; lighting by Tyler Micoleau; costumes by Clint Ramos; sound by Brandon Wolcott. Music by César Alvarez w. The Lisps. With Vinie Burrows, Kate Benson, Ephraim Birney, Clifton Duncan, Annie Golden, Jack Allen Greenfield, Brooke Ishibashi, Paul Juhn, Mia Katigbak, Lisa Kron, Taylor Mac, David Turner, and Darryl Winslow. A production of the Foundry Theatre. At La MaMa ETC, Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street, 1 February-24 February 2013. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, one 10-minute intermission. Tickets here. Reviewed at the 5 February performance. More about the play here.
“Charming” isn’t a word usually applied to Bertolt Brecht’s plays; that grating sound you hear is the dramatist’s body rotating in his Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery grave. When I apply the word to the Foundry Theatre‘s new production of Good Person of Szechwan, though, I mean it in the most positive sense. Lear deBessonet’s staging, like her Saint Joan of the Stockyards in 2007, engages the audience without ever encouraging that audience to lose itself in empathy with the characters of the play (which would have sent Brecht’s corpse spinning even more wildly) — it retains its power to provoke critical thought about culture and society, the mission of the production company itself. Yes, it is charming — it is also thought-provoking, wildly entertaining and fun.
Let us take the plot and history of the play as read. The character of Shen Tei requires a performer of unique talents and charisma, and in Taylor Mac it finally has one. A long-time denizen of downtown theatre, Taylor Mac appears here in a rare foray into traditional theatre form (and, a hundred years on, Brechtian practice has become a tradition of sorts), and indeed he does play against the sentimentality that might be associated with the character. He is a striking figure — a whitened bald head, his camisole making no pretense at hiding his body hair as he performs and demonstrates the persona of Shen Tei — yet the expression of goodness and desire is all in the voice, the gesture. It does take him a while to fully invest in the character and the play — it isn’t until the “Song of Defencelessness of the Good and the Gods” about midway into the first act that he finally hits his most impressive stride — but until then the plot and explication are ably carried by the kabuki-via-Lower-East-Side charms of David Turner’s waterseller, Wang, who helps the three gods (Vinie Burrows, Annie Golden, Mia Katigbak) on their quest to find a single “good” individual. Other standout members of the uniformly excellent ensemble include Lisa Kron as Mrs. Mi Tzu and Mrs. Yang (though she does risk dipping into stereotype now and again more than the other performers, one doesn’t go to Brecht looking for psychological realism — at least, I don’t); Kate Benson as Shen Tei’s confidant Mrs. Shin, channelling a cynical Thelma-Ritter-style knowingness; and Clifton Duncan as Shen Tei’s arrogant and scheming beau, Yang Sun.
Accompanying the whole is a disarmingly complex neo-rustic score from César Alvarez w. The Lisps, with Sammy Tunis as the standout vocalist here; Matt Saunders’ set, a series of brown platforms that rises to the rear of the stage, becomes more and more elemental as the evening progresses, from a childlike assemblage of Szechwan shanties in the first act to a sparer look for the bleaker second act (including a surprisingly effective but minimal evocation of Shui Ta’s sweatshop).
A word or two more should be said about Taylor Mac’s performance, especially since it addresses what John Willett and Ralph Manheim wrote about the pitfalls of staging the play: “What seems rather surprising, in view of the high risk of having Shen Teh interpreted as a sweet-natured oriental waif, is that Brecht’s experience of Chinese acting, which so influenced him in other respects, never led him to propose giving the dual role to a man. This would instantly correct any undue softness that may stem from the sexually loaded ‘good woman’ image; moreover it seems to make it easier to see elements of Shui Ta in Shen Teh and vice versa, as the parable surely demands; nor is there anything in the text to rule it out.” Lear deBessonet’s mosaic of acting and production styles here includes both kabuki and queer theatre. Talk of “queering Brecht” is in the end probably just as academic as talk of “straightening Kushner,” but it does have the effect of injecting into this late mid-period work the irrational sensual and sexual drives of Brecht’s Weimar-period plays like Drums in the Night and In the Jungle of Cities. Indeed, as the play goes on, Shen Tei becomes more and more trapped in the body, gender identity, and persona of her bitter businessman cousin, Shui Ta, indicating how trapped in falsehood we may all become as we make our way through a culture which does not reward goodness. Taylor Mac, it must be said, captures this sense of entrapment brilliantly.
Good Person of Szechwan remains, I’m afraid, one of Brecht’s minor plays in my estimation, but like the less successful plays of Shakespeare, his failures are often more interesting than the successes of lesser talents. Lear deBessonet, who is one of America’s leading interpreters of Brecht these days, makes Good Person of Szechwan most interesting, delightful, and charming indeed. This is a rare Brecht for all ages, too — and a special nod to second-grader Jack Allen Greenfield, a most impressive ensemble member here, for whom I predict a stellar future. It only runs for a few more weeks. You should help them sell it out by purchasing your tickets here.