A CurtainUp Review
Good Person Of Szechwan
By Elyse Sommer
Brecht seriously themed plays with their elements of vaudeville, commedia dell'arte and music are a challenge to stage. But Director Lear DeBessonet and her team of designers and magnificent performers have balanced all these elements with great style while remaining true to Brecht's vision.
Gregory Wilson was right on the mark when he reviewed Good Person of Szechwan. at La Mama and predicted that the Foundry Theatre had a winner on its hands. For the Public Theater the current production (same crafts crew and cast, except for one of the Gods) it's a double winner: At the Newman Theater, a brand new musical, Fun Home . . . and at the Martinson this old show made exhilaratingly new again by virtue of the very apt casting of Taylor Mac as the title character, ingeniously original stage craft and wonderfully melodic, snappy and suitable music by the Indie pop-rock band The Lisps.
The Foundry production sticks fairly close to John Willet's translation. Shen Tei, the central character is very much a good, kind person, but poverty has forced her into a decidedly bad way for supporting herself in the slums of Szechwan. The three Gods who've searched in vain for "goodness" have lowered their expectations to settle for just one person to prove that you can be good and still survive in a harsh world.
When only Shen Tei responds to their need for one night's shelter, they embrace her as the answer to their prayers even though she's a prostitute. To express their thanks and support her continued goodness, the Gods pay Shen Tei a tidy sum for their hospitality which enables her to open up a tobacco shop.
Unsurprisingly Shen Tei's goodness is severely tested by other slum residents who immediately do everything they can to take advantage of her good luck and kindness. In self-defense she develops a Jekyll and Hyde survival tactic and morphs into a fictious cousin named Shui Ta to deal with her neighbors.
Though this is hardly a light hearted fairy tale, as Brecht's plays never are, the Foundry's way of telling it takes full advantage of the inherent comedy of the playwright's ludicrously exaggerated but very human cast of Szechuwan citizenry. Director deBessonet has transformed the entire stage into a gorgeous cartoon, with the Szechwan landscape a series of cardboard houses (a special round of applaudse forset designer Matt Saunders). These props emphasize the outsized personas living in them without ever being cutesy or like a children's show (though it would not be out of order for parents to take kids of about twelve along),.
The cast, one and all, embodies these characters with the required flamboyance, often taking on several roles. David Turner is most endearing as the Water Seller who serves as a sort of MC/narrator. Vinie Burrows, Mia Katibak and Mary Shultz are delightful as the three Gods, each a head to toe vision in white (Clint Ramos's costumes and Dave Bova's wigs and makeup are stunning for the non-Gods as well).
Now that the show has landed at the Public Theater, Lisa Kron's terrific dual performance is especially meaningful since Kron is also the bookwriter and librettist for Fun Home. Kron plays Mrs. Mi Tzu, the greedy landlady of Shen Te's tobacco shop as well as Mrs. Yang, the mother of the handsome but self-serving wannabe pilot Yan Sun (Clifton Duncan, who also doubles as the quite different looking Grandfather)
Last but anything but least is Taylor Mac unforgettably touching Shen Tei and her nasty male alter ego Shui Ta. Though usually played by a woman, Mac fits the good-hearted lady's role like the perennial a glove, but is just as convincing as the very male Shi Ta with his Salvador Dali-ish moustache. Mac seems born for this role. He also happens to be a fine singer, which brings us to the music. The three guys and a gal band concert at the foot of the stage. They remain a vital part throughout, moving upstage where Eric Farber's found percussion contraption morphs into a regular drum set.
To conclude, this paraphrase of Shen Te's plaintive "How can I be good when everything is so expensive?" — "How can a play with such a serious and sadly true to our times theme be so entertaining?" — trust me, the good people of The Foundry Theatre have made this Good Person of Szechwan the most fun and entertaining show in town. And, yes, its theme is meaningful even though Bertolt Brecht wrote it a dozen years ago.
Don't miss it!
A consumer note: Since the Public's extensive and beautiful renovation, getting to the first floor bathrooms from the Martinson's third floor is no longer a rush proposition. There are enough bathrooms so that there's no waiting and plenty of time to accommodate everyone without rush or anxiety about getting back in time for the second act.