First Look Festival: Brecht’s The Good Person of Sezuan

I’m keeping my eye on Classic Stage Company, and so should you.

While The Tempest plays at their 13th Street home six days a week, on recent Mondays CSC has presented another of its annual First Look readings series, this time centered on the work of 20th century theatrical pioneer Bertolt Brecht.
These First Look readings – which take place after only an afternoon’s worth of rehearsal time – serve mainly as impromptu artistic experiments, whereby the theatre company can mount classic texts in front of paying audiences in order to explore their viability as possible full productions in future Classic Stage season lineups.

This week’s reading of Brecht’s moral melodrama The Good Person of Sezuan, featuring film star Maggie Gyllenhaal, a last minute replacement for under-the-weather Elizabeth Marvel (currently starring in Fifty Words off-Broadway), gave a top-notch cast a chance to explore the underbelly of modern society through this Sezuan province-set tale of the corruption of greed by the complex struggles of modern life.

Water seller Wang begins the play by introducing himself and his poverty-stricken home of Sezuan. Three gods visit the province, met with inhospitable local residents who refuse them keep. All except one, the poor prostitute Shen Te (Gyllenhaal), who opens up her home to the weary spirits after brief hesitation. In return, the gods give her a thousand silver dollars with which to become a better person. She uses the money to buy a tobacco shop, returning the gods’ favor by giving food and shelter her friends and enemies alike.

Faced with the consequences of her goodly actions, Shen Te creates a practical, no-nonsense alter ego for herself in the form of her make-believe cousin Shui Ta. But while assuming the identity of Shui Ta can solve some of Shen Te’s problems, others are more complicated. Her love for the conniving pilot Sun Yang (Jason Butler Harner) is sacrificed for her betrothal to greedy barber Shu Fu (Ben Shenkman), and Shen Te’s profligate intake of the local poor is soon exploited by Shui Ta when the unemployed are recruited as hand-to-mouth laborers in Shen Te’s newly founded tobacco factory. The more corrupt she becomes, the better off she is in society. As she tries to improve her standing with the gods, all remnants of her personal happiness threaten to crumble at her feet.

In a distinctly modern choice, Gyllenhaal made the Jekyll-and-Hyde transition from kind, altruistic Shen Te to cutthroat Shui Ta by donning a pair of sunglasses as well as widening her gait and loosening her swagger. Nevertheless, her warm vocal inflections changed only minimally, making the acceptance of her dual personalities amongst the townspeople with whom she comes in regular contact somewhat implausible. This could be a strength or weakness, depending on how one looks at the play. Is it preferable that Shen Te’s moral deception be one largely accepted by an oblivious public or a construction of her fundamentally corrupted internal nature?

Jeremy Strong (Richard Rich in Roundabout’s current revival of A Man For All Seasons) played Wang the water seller with wide-eyed deference to the gods. Jayne Houdyshell as former tobacco shop owner Mrs. Shin and Roberta Maxwell as Mi Tzu the landlady and Sun’s mother provided comic support, lightening the mood of the play at key moments. Also noteworthy are Judith Roberts, Mary Shultz, and T. Ryder Smith as the three gods, who appear during various interludes to speak with Wang about their search for just one good person on Earth.

Tony Kushner’s new translation is worth picking apart, particularly in the wake of David Harrower’s recent translation for the Young Vic in London, which utilized Brecht’s edited version of the text (sometimes called the “Santa Monica version”) and also retitled the play “The Good Soul of Szechuan” to reflect Harrower’s interpretation of the word “Mensch” in Brecht’s original German title, “Der Guter Mensch von Sezuan.” Kushner’s is neither inherently better or worse than Harrower’s, but the two have several distinct differences. Kushner chooses not to include the opium subplot that Harrower includes, eliminating the opportunity for the character of Shen Te to abet her former fianc’s descent into drug-addled destitution. This subplot is replaced by the placement of Yang Sun as a worker in in the tobacco factory.

Kushner also includes an epilogue to the play following the climactic courtroom scene, supplying a somewhat disappointingly hopeful denouement for what is an otherwise satisfyingly morally dismal play. Nonetheless, Kushner proves himself as a comfortable fit for translating Brecht’s plays, his hand as assured here as it was in his translation of Mother Courage for Shakespeare in the Park’s Meryl Streep-headed production several summers ago. Kushner, author of 1990s phenomenon Angels in America, understands – as did his fictionalized Roy Cohn character in Angels – greed as a throbbing organ of the American body politic, a necessary quality to retain in retaining the original spirit of Brecht’s writing.

What is most notable about The Good Person of Sezuan from this one-night-only reading is its relevance as a timely morality play. As viewed through a contemporary American lens, it even speaks to our current economic situation. Mentions of business, probably not so strongly considered when this reading was scheduled onto the First Look program, got quite a vocal reaction from an audience, reacting no doubt to the past few weeks’ erratic stock market fluctuations. Though the economy may experience boom-and-bust periods, however, the overall success of this reading serves as an indication that the work of Bertolt Brecht may never to go out of style – at least as long as people still suffer basic inhumanities within society.

The First Look Festival: Brecht concludes Monday 20 October at 8 PM with Life of Galileo starring Richard Easton, directed by Classic Stage artistic director Brian Kulick.

The event is officially sold out, but wait list tickets should be available. More information can be obtained by calling the box office at 212-677-4210, extension 10.

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