KPBS AIRDATE: August 10, 1994
At first, I thought it was another clubbing by the PC Police; it seemed to be “politically correct” — calling the Bertolt Brecht classic “The Good Person of Setzuan” instead of the more common “The Good Woman of Setzuan.” But actually, it’s probably a better translation of the German, if you know what a mensch is.
In his new adaptation, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner didn’t impose his own high-profile, “Angels in America” personal/political sensibilities on Brecht. He stuck very close to the original, but Brecht’s 1940 views of Marxism and capitalism in the Nazi years are uncomfortably close to our own need for post Cold War re-examination.
The play takes place in the mythical city of Setzuan, where three frustrated, often-ignored gods come searching for just one good, moral person, who would justify the continuation of the world as it is. They find Shen Te, a prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold. They reward her with a small sum of money, and she buys a tobacco shop. But, in her unfailing efforts to do good, she is constantly thwarted by the greed, laziness, exploitation and sheer poverty of her neighbors. In order to survive, she splits her personality and invents an alter ego, an “evil” cousin, Shui Ta. Disguised as the ruthless, business-minded Shui Ta, Shen Te is paradoxically able to do more good than before, and to remain financially afloat.
The moralizing of the play may be heavy-handed at times, but we cannot ignore its disturbingly modern metaphysical questions: Is it possible to be kind and generous and successful? Can anyone, anywhere, remain good in a world that encourages evil? How much should we give away, before we’re consumed by the takers?
Don’t look for answers here; the production ends with an epilogue in doggerel, during which a desperate Shen Te cries out to the gods, who seem to desert her, floating upwards on a pink cloud, and disappearing into the fly-space.
Robert Brill’s evocative set provides an Asian aura, with its corrugated tin shacks and giant lizard creeping down a Chinese-red backdrop. Despite many bows to Oriental theater convention, director Lisa Peterson has given the piece a decidedly So-Cal, border-city feel, seething beneath the surface. The cast is consciously multicultural. The dialogue is peppered with Spanish, but Kushner’s use of language aptly moves, as Brecht’s did, from the prosaic to the poetic, from the harsh to the lyrical. And it is bolstered by the songs, superbly set to Latin and rock rhythms by David Hidalgo and Louie Perez of Los Lobos, energetically played by three talented musicians in the pit.
The 3 1/4-hour evening starts off slow, uncertain, somehow amateurish. But, like its heroine, it grows in stature and gains our respect. We are treated to some highly dramatic moments, and some very engaging performances.
Charlayne Woodard, who has a dynamite voice, is a sweet but not syrupy Shen Te and a swaggering but not really a brutish Shui Ta. Gedde Watanabe is nimble and likable as the smart-simpleton, Wang. As the love interest, the user-turned-useful, Lou Diamond Phillips manages to make all his time onstage riveting. The entire cast of twelve is chameleon-like, moving in and out of some 27 characters. Diane Rodriguez, Ching Valdes-Aran and Chris de Oni contribute standout characterizations.
All told, the creation of this theatrical trinity falls short of a religious experience: not as alienating as Brecht would want, or as emotionally gripping as Kushner would want, or as crisply California as Peterson would want. A very smart production, but not a brilliant one.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.