Okay, okay. So lemme just start by saying that I had a semester-long love affair with Good Person and that Bertolt Brecht is a rather scatter-brained, unorganized, ridiculous playwright WHO SHAPED THE WAY I THINK ABOUT THEATER IN EVERY WAY SHAPE AND FORM.
Now, Brecht is tricky. Because if you read his theory and essays on the theater, his basic aim is to completely alienate his audience from the play. This gist of it is that the audience should never be sucked into the “reality” of the play. To use some more culturally charged vocabulary, we must resist molding the audience member into a passive consumer of media, ideas, or representations of reality. Rather, audiences must continuously be reminded of the construction of the play and be estranged from it. No catharsis here, buddy. Brecht terms his vision of the theater, “epic theater.” Some ways of doing this are:
a) making the technicals of the theater (costumes, scenery, scene changes, etc.) transparent to the audience instead of the traditional art of making the theater as realist as possible
b) foregoing the concept of a traditional hero or protagonist and making every character one that you critique and feel quite moved AGAINST
c) letting the audience judge for themselves what the “moral” of the play is, usually rather explicitly with a finale courtroom scene that addresses the audience as jury.
All of this, Brecht argues, makes a ACTIVE theatregoer who responds to what they see on stage and apply it to the real world. Y’know, instead of leaving it all in happystageland.
La Mama’s new production of The Good Person of Szechuan was really just experiment, folksy theater at its finest. Exciting, entrancing musical numbers. Hilarious comedic acting. Relevance to modern day society. Ideas and conflicts that will leave you and your friends talking more than just a few minutes over dinner. I, unfortunately, went alone, which resulted in an awkward moment when the lights came up at intermission and I was staring at my neighbor with a huge smile on my face because I was so darn happy!
If anything, one could accuse this Good Person of being too entertaining, of sweeping us off our feet, if we want to make Brecht into some kind of grumpy, aesthetic alien man. Which he’s not. So you do the math.
In Good Person, the gods appear in China on a quest to find as many “good” people as possible. They are given lodging by a prostitute named Shen Te. As a reward, the gods give Shen Te enough money to leave her prostitution days behind her and buy a tobacco shop to make an honest living. Because she is know for her kindness and charity, the new shopkeeper is assailed by figures from her past and the poor of the community, who take advantage of her and leave her worse off than she started. Not to mention a love interest who, don’t ya know, is using her for her newfound status.
Shen Te’s solution is to cross-dress as her ‘cousin’ Shui Ta, who lays down the law and gets rid of the vagabonds and manipulators in Shen Te’s shop. Eventually, Shui Ta gains enough power to use the poor of the community as factory laborers. Shui Ta’s factory becomes very successful, but partly because of his cruel treatment and the low wages of his workers.
How can a good person exist in a system where one must always fend for oneself? How can we do good for ourselves without harming the welfare of others?
When the gods are confronted with this dilemma, they state that they do not meddle in the business affairs of men. Afterall, what does business have to do with morality?
What? Did I hear you say that this parable-esque story is ripe with tons of relevant ideas and interesting, complex discussions about class, gender, and morality?
And can we just talk about how incredible Taylor Mac is? Just a flawless human being with grace and beauty enough to pull off a baby bump in 6 inch heels while belting ballad. His cross-gender portrayal of Shen Te/Shui Ta always supercedes parody. Instead he fills her with genuine struggle and conflict. I couldn’t help feeling that despite the bald head, the drag makeup and costume, the outline of his genitals against his slip, and the awkward baby bump, there was no disputing the fact that Shen Te was absolutely beautiful in her struggle for goodness.