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good person of szechwan

The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Classic Stage Company

Because Dr. Emmett Brown is a communist, of course.

This has been an AH-mazing year for Brecht on the Off-Broadway Stage. Leading the pack was La Mama’s production of The Good Person of Szechwan. I am in no way exaggerating that Good Person was one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. Catch it when it comes to the Public Theater’s Fall 2013 season if you know what’s best for you.

For Caucasian Chalk Circle to follow up La Mama’s act means it needed to meet public expectations for innovative staging, great musical numbers, diverse talent that showcases Brecht’s knack for combining joyous hilarity with utter sadness, and vibrant direction that mixes fun with social consciousness.

Thankfully, Chalk Circle serves up just such a production. And the thanks doesn’t just go to the show’s poster child (poster-elder?) Christopher Lloyd– I’ll get to Mr. Lloyd and his awesome self in just a minute.

The play masterfully mixes the sentimental and the abstract, comedy and tragedy, potent storytelling and meta-narrative. Throw in a dash of some rather unique musical numbers and imaginative staging– I can barely think of anything this production does wrong.

Now, Chalk Circle doesn’t have the kitschy pizzazz that made Szechwan a success with audiences. But it is also a rather very different kind of story.  Grusha, a palace maid, saves a baby Prince in a turbulent time of Revolution. She raises the child as her own, making many sacrifices along the way to keep the child’s identity a secret. Once the monarchy is restored, however, Grusha is found out and taken to trial. Since Brecht is Brecht, there’s a whole play within a play structure, which the CSC company makes hilarious use of. Grusha, like Shen Te, is a simple yet heartbreaking character that audiences can truly root for. There’s also an interesting motif of motherhood in both plays… was Brecht possibly drawn to motherhood as a contrast to the paternalistic society and alienating economy he worked through? Hm.

The cast plays several parts, all excellently, and there is truly an ensemble quality to the piece. Christopher Lloyd doesn’t so much steal the show as merely astound us with his physical agility, resounding voice, and frank acting. Lloyd actually switches characters mid-play, and the difference between the rickety, low-voiced Singer and his confident, bombastic, vulgar Judge is a credit to his talent (and makes for the best Act I closing line that I have probably ever seen).

So now that I’m a total Brecht nut, I can fully endorse both Chalk Circle AND Szechwan when it makes its way to the Public this fall.

The Good Person of Szechwan at La Mama

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.

 

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