A stageful of Good at the Public Theater

02-1 As someone still just becoming familiar with theater, especially with the classics, I was intrigued by the buzz on The Foundry’s recent production of Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan. Based on superficial acquaintance, I admit that I have long thought of Brecht’s work as being too didactic, or self-consciously arty, or (egad) too hyper-political to be actually enjoyable.

But the word on The Foundry’s new production, based on a translation by John Willett, directed by Lear DeBessonet and starring the gender-bending performer Taylor Mac, was so good – and tickets were so hard to get when it ran at La Mama last winter – that when I saw it was opening at the Public Theater, I jumped on the chance to see it. Twice. I may go a third time.

Anyone who cares at all for theater needs to see this Good Person of Szechwan. My preconceptions about Brechtian theater, at least as far as I can tell from this production, were as wrong as could be. DeBessonet’s Good Person wears its heart on its sleeve and, in the hands of a charged-up cast blessed with sly comic timing and boundless physical energy, the production is as joyous a celebration of poverty, homelessness, dishonesty and the confounding difficulties and impossible conundrums of the human condition as you’ll find.

Wait, what? A joyous celebration of poverty, intractable difficulties and the human condition? How does that work?

Beautifully. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but by any measure, the difficulties faced by the characters in Good Person, from the title character to nearly every other character in the play, are as nearly-impossible as they are timeless and universal. And Brecht’s playful, comic, yet passionately sympathetic approach to a subject that could be deeply tragic, makes this play a transcendent experience.

The setting is almost fairy tale-like, though it is set in a very specific place: A poor town in China. But seeing it in New York, where the number of people living in poverty grows, visibly, every year – and where perhaps one’s own struggle to make it is never far from mind – the distance from these characters to us doesn’t seem very far at all.

And when Taylor Mac’s Shen Te asks the rhetorical question that animates the play – “How can I be good when everything is so expensive?” – it sounds like a question many New Yorkers could ask.

As the titular “good person” – even though she’s a prostitute – Shen Te tries to do the right thing. She does so even when no one else does, even when they cheat her and then ask for more of her – and grow indignant when they don’t get it. Or even when they do. But try as she might, her struggles get even harder. She is as sympathetic a character as they come.

And a remarkable one as well:  The play’s  “good person” – a woman (Shen Te) played by a man who pretends at points to be a man (Shui Ta) – is not only sympathetic, but also visually remarkable. Mac’s stylized eye make-up, close-shaved head and simple but effective back-and-forth costuming – not to mention the gender play – puts the character solidly in a universal, Everyperson mode.

And yet, the character is utterly unique. It’s a neat trick that doesn’t seem like a trick at all. As played by Taylor Mac, it’s not a trick. Shen Te/Shui Ta is a real person, and Mac plays her like the tragic figure – and clown – that she is. That we are.

But Mac’s elegant performance aside, this is very much an ensemble piece, directed with great vigor and resourcefulness by DeBessonet, who is clearly passionate about the work, and wants to make sure we get the message and have a good time.

That would seem to be easier said than done, given the subject matter. Brecht offers no relief to the characters, no hope that they can escape the impossible situation in which they have been placed. And while each tries to maneuver and squirm out, they all seem well aware that their struggle is futile. Yet the tone of the piece is never hopeless. As one character says, “It’s not for us to change the world.” Brecht, writing the play in exile in Santa Monica while the Nazis ruled his homeland, couldn’t have felt that fatalistic, and the play doesn’t surrender, but throws the question back at the audience: What are YOU going to do about?

No solutions are offered – Brecht is painfully realistic about humanity’s faults, whatever station in life – but by play’s end, the challenge is clearly made.

Through the show, the characters break the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly and spouting aphorisms that may sound like fortune cookies, but underline the action in unexpectedly profound ways. Brecht’s writing is sharp and witty, and I can only assume that the contemporary tone of much of the play, though written and set long ago, is a function of the veracity of his message. The truth, clearly-spoken, is timeless.

Those other characters are as richly-drawn as they are crushingly poor, and the actors who embody them are all good, and in some cases, spectacular. One hardly knows where to direct one’s eyes as the actors roam the stair-stepped stage, low-tech but strongly-evocative of a cardboard shanty-town.

David Turner, as Wang the water seller, who also serves as de facto narrator, plays his character with a broad humor and physical comedy, but also a sweetness and vulnerability that makes him our surrogate.

The three gods – played by the tiny-but-formidable Vinie Burrows, sunny Mary Schultz and forbidding Mia Katigbak – start the action with their quest for “one good person,” and a gift of $1000 to Shen Te. They serve as Brecht’s foil throughout: They are aware of, but largely impervious to, the suffering their commandments cause. If there are villains among all these flawed, imperfect or downright bad characters, they are the divine ones.

Actor/playwright Lisa Kron – whose new musical Fun Home is currently in another theater at The Public – expertly plays her two characters (Mrs. Mi Tzu and Mrs. Yang) for broad laughs, and Brooke Ishibashi, whose character is simply known as The Woman, moves with such exaggerated deliberation, her eyes wide and body elastic, as to enliven every shabby crowd in which she appears.

There is yet another dimension to this delightful spectacle: Music. The show is not a musical, per se, but DeBessonet takes Brecht a step further by adding music to the scraps of lyrics the playwright provides, which gives some of the characters, as well as the audience, some welcome changes of pace. Performed, from the back and top of the set, by New York quartet The Lisps, the songs (by songwriter Cesar Alvarez, who does not perform) move the show along without derailing the dramatic momentum. The more frequent, radio-show-like sound effects by everything-but-spoons percussionist Eric Farber), underline the comic moments beautifully.

By the end of the show, there is Shen Te, played by Mac with great sadness, but a luminous beauty that transcends gender, as well as time and place, in the most remarkable way. I won’t spoil it, but that’s not all: Brecht has one more surprise for us: a plea, straight from the heart. It’s a dazzling moment, one I couldn’t do justice. Go see Good Person of Szechwan as soon as you can. You will be a better person for it.

Good Person of Szechwan runs through November 24 at The Public Theater.  Information and tickets here. 

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