POSTED ON MAY 19, 2010:
A Sense of Epic
The Good Woman of Setzuan puts on a good show but misses some key features
While Heller Theatre's production of Bertolt Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan attempted to modernize a 1940s folk play, it would have done well to maintain some of the elements of the playwright's epic style.
The play, translated by Eric Bentley and directed by Heller Theatre's Artistic Director Julie Tattershall, is a cynical examination of the conflict between human goodness and wicked capitalism.
It opens with Wong, a sewer-dwelling water seller and pseudo narrator played by Barbara Murn, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the gods, the "illustrious ones."
This trio of gods, played by George Nelson, Bonny Downs and George Romero, has descended to Earth in search of one good human being -- something they have heretofore been unable to locate.
Arriving in the Chinese city of Setzuan (though the characters all have Chinese names, none are actually Chinese. This isn't just due to a lack of China-born actors in Tulsa; the diverse cast signifies the characters as everyman and everywoman), the gods hope to find a good person, someone who adheres to the little black book of rules the gods have commanded down to their people.
Wong sets about finding the gods shelter for their stay in the city, but no one is willing to open up his or her home, even to this set of illustrious beings.
Finally, a young prostitute by the name of Shen Te (Sara Phoenix) agrees to house the three, and in return for her goodness, they bestow on her 1,000 silver dollars and an admonition to remain good.
Shen Te invests the money in a small tobacco shop, what she sees as an opportunity to better herself, and almost immediately finds herself the target of suppliants, her neighbors and extended family.
Finally exhausted by their begging -- she doesn't dare say no; her goodness won't allow it -- Shen Te invents a male cousin by the name of Shui Ta, a shrewd if calculating businessman who does her dirty work for her. He rids her shop of the leeches and brings her business into the black.
Shui Ta comes up with a plan to bolster Shen Te's finances -- she should marry. But, as she prepares to visit her would-be suitor, she encounters a young man in the park with designs on killing himself.
Able to talk him down from his hanging tree, Shen Te quickly falls in love with the man, an unemployed mail pilot called Yang Sun (Jarrod Kopp).
It's not long, though, before Shen Te, pregnant with Yang Sun's child, realizes his intentions with her aren't altogether noble, and, once again, Shui Ta enters the scene to do what she cannot.
Shen Te relies more and more on Shui Ta to run her thriving tobacco business and, after six months of posing as her cousin, Shen Te's absence makes the townsfolk suspicious. They accuse Shui Ta of foul play and put him on trial; the gods, dressed in judges' robes, preside.
Shen Te reveals her identity and the motivation behind her actions, imploring for the second time (the first was after she quartered the gods) advice on how to be good.
As is Brecht's method, the question is turned on the audience, and it becomes our mission to determine the place of goodness in this capitalistic country and to ensure that goodness exists.
Brecht's tales were meant to be elaborate productions, with large sets, masks, costumes and song and dance. Heller's performance employs the song and dance, even turning one of the songs into a rap, but forgoes the masks and complicated costumes in favor of more common dress. The set, too, is minimal, with a platform on one side and a nearly bare tobacco shop on the other.
While the most prominent characters are easily distinguishable, both for their characterization and their fine acting, the supporting players -- and there are plenty -- could have used a little flair. They too often blended in with the background.
The gods were superb. George Nelson, as First God, led the pack as a clever but bored higher being who has all but given up on humanity. Downs is dignified and slightly snobbish as Second God, and George Romero, as Third God, is childlike to the point of being daft, but in a very sweet, very endearing way.
Their dress, first in black suits and then Hawaiian shirts, creatively and appropriately distinguishes them from the rest of the cast.
Also on Mark was Phoenix's performance as Shen Te; although I would have preferred a more creative costume choice (her attire as Shui Ta was more suitable). As Shen Te, she was innocent and naïve but charmingly so. Although it's not what Brecht intended for his plays, her performance of Shen Te was earnest and heartfelt.
Her portrayal of Shui Ta was as fine, if not better. When the character first entered the stage, powerful and booming, I glanced down at my program to locate the name of the actor playing this role. Unable to find it, I looked up again and realized it was Phoenix. That's either a testament to my idiocy or to her skill as an actress.
The best part of Phoenix's portrayal of Shui Ta was her ability to, ever-so-subtly, maintain the characteristics of Shen Te at the same time. She was not an actress playing two roles; rather, she was an actress playing Shen Te, who was playing Shui Ta.
Also notable were Murn as Wong, very nearly a "good woman" herself; Brittainy Boyer as Mrs. Shin, the woman who sold Shen Te the tobacco shop and who provided apt comic relief throughout the play; and Kopp as the unlikable, and yet somehow likable, Yang Sun.
I appreciate Tattershall's effort to modernize Brecht's script and, in some ways, she very much succeeded. But I think some of the modernization actually gave way to dullness and, with so many characters onstage attempting to recite the playwright's garrulous lines, and with little action to accompany those lines, the play failed in keeping my rapt attention throughout.
Luckily, good acting from the cast's lead actors made for moments of real intrigue, and the play was good more often than it wasn't.
Heller Theatre continues its run of The Good Woman of Setzuan May 20-22 at 8pm and May 23 at 2pm at Henthorne Park, 4825 S. Quaker. Tickets are available at www.hellertheatre.com or by calling 746-5065.
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