Off-Broadway Theater Review: GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN (The Public Theater)

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by Victoria Linchong on October 29, 2013

in Theater-New York

MUCH BETTER THAN GOOD

The last thing that Brecht would have wanted is the audience to identify with his characters. But that’s where the Foundry Theatre’s production of Good Person of Szechwan so brilliantly succeeds. Rather than distancing the audience with didactic Marxism and dubious Orientalia, the play dives headlong into the despair of a woman forced to choose between love and money, between being good to herself or being good to others.

The cast of The Foundry Theatre's production of Good Person of Szechwan.

The Foundry plays free and loose with this translation by John Willett, which begins when three gods come to Szechwan to find a good person. No will even take them in for the night until a water seller points them to Shen Te, a hooker with a heart of gold. The gods reward her with enough money to open up a small shop and exhort her to remain good, but she finds it impossible when she is besieged by a hungry horde of harpies and fleeced by a destitute lover. To survive, she resorts to disguising herself as a fictitious male cousin, the ruthless and pragmatic Shui Ta. Lamenting to the implacable gods, she concludes, “Something is wrong with this world of yours. Why is wickedness so rewarded, and why is so much suffering reserved for the good?”

The cast of The Foundry Theatre's production of Good Person of Szechwan.

This is a must-see production and if you weren’t able to score tickets to its sold-out previous incarnation at La MaMa, now’s your second chance at the Public. Among other reasons, Good Person is affecting because the socioeconomic question that Brecht poses is so ridiculously pertinent: The play might be the perfect allegory for New York City after a recession and eight years of Mayor Bloomberg.  The quandary at the heart of this problem play is whether honesty, generosity and love can survive in a capitalistic dog-eat-dog world.  Or as Shen Te puts it, “How can I be good when everything is so expensive?”

David Turner, Taylor Mac,  Darryl Winslow, and Clifton Duncan in The Foundry Theatre's production of Good Person of Szechwan.

It’s a question that continues to resonate sixty years after Brecht wrote the play. The New York Times stated in an article last year: “The wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites made more than 40 times what the lowest fifth reported, a widening gap…surpassed by only a few developing countries, including Namibia and Sierra Leone.” Yes, New York City is now comparable to sub-Saharan Africa in economic inequality. Among my long-time New Yorker friends, money has become an ever-constant lament – how to pay rent, how to survive, how to continue making art – in a city that is increasingly unaffordable and hostile to anyone with a low income or an alternative lifestyle. Which is every artist I know. Only now, instead of turning to fascism, we’re turning to homogenous soul-sucking winner-take-all corporatism.

Clifton Duncan and Taylor Mac (center) and the cast of The Foundry Theatre's production of Good Person of Szechwan.

I couldn’t help but be struck with the once-upon-a-time reality in this play when selling water was regarded as a ludicrous dead-end profession. We know now that all the guy has to do is put the water in a bottle, add a label, and – problem solved! – he’s got a marketable product.

The cast of The Foundry Theatre's production of Good Person of Szechwan.

This production is also revelatory for tackling another thorny subject. By casting Taylor Mac as Shen Te, gender issues are illuminated through the meta-theatrics of a man playing a woman playing a man. I was left pondering how one can be “good” faced with not only the general economic and social inequality of the world, but also marginalized as a woman with less pay and – in many places like the real Sichuan – fewer rights. There is even an astonishingly radical feminist strip tease where Shen Te peels off her clothes and tosses them into the audience, but instead of ending in tits and tassels, she emerges as a well-dressed man, her alter ego Shui Ta.

Kate Benson and Taylor Mac in The Foundry Theatre's production of Good Person of Szechwan.

That strip tease is just one of the pinnacles of Mac’s fantastic tour-de-force performance. Who knew that all Brecht needed was a little camp to make the medicine go down? As Shen Te, he is a gangly gal in a red kimono that is constantly flapping open like her big tender heart. Transformed into Shui Ta, he strides and grimaces, sporting both a wobbly mustache and an impeccably tailored pinstriped suit.

Lisa Kron, Paul Juhn, Brooke Ishibashi, Taylor Mac, and Ephraim Birney in The Foundry Theatre's production of Good Person of Szechwan.

The rest of the multiethnic ensemble cast is just as dazzling. David Turner as Wang, the aforementioned water seller, is a lovable bundle of anxiety. Mia Katigback is a deadpan no-nonsense God #2, while Mary Shulz is love-and-sunshine personified as God # 3.  Lisa Kron plays Mrs. Yang as the quintessential Jewish mom, rolling her eyes as she asks the audience, “You have kids?”

Brooke Ishibashi and Taylor Mac in The Foundry Theatre's production of Good Person of Szechwan

Matt Saunders’ set exudes a warm homespun simplicity, especially with Petra Floyd’s cardboard houses, which are just the way Brecht describes Szechwan in the play: “blocks of buildings…like rubbish heaps with little lights glowing in them.” Clint Ramos designed the nifty and over-the-top costumes, including a wedding headdress that looks like the love child of a crystal chandelier and a bright red anvil. Among other delights is the music by César Alvarez and The Lisps, who contribute gorgeous ideas such as the many ways to sing oooh (dangerously, lustfully, achingly); Eric Farber bangs away on an incredible array of found percussion in a suitcase. Director Lear deBessonet achieves the impossible and dusts the stodginess off Brecht in this luminous production, revealing a Good Person of Szechwan that is remarkably fresh and not just good but truly great.

David Turner, Mary Schultz, Mia Katigbak, and Vinie Burrows in The Foundry Theatre's production of Good Person of Szechwan.

photos by Carol Rosegg

Good Person of Szechwan
Foundry Theatre at the Public Theater
scheduled to end on November 24, 2013
EXTENDED to December 8, 2013
for tickets, call 212.967.7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org/
for more info, visit http://www.thefoundrytheatre.org/

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