For the second show of their summer season, Cal Shakes brings us a lesser-known play from the 20th Century Western canon which co-opts Eastern themes to weave a complex parable about the difficulty of being morally good and generous in a world full of need, and greed. And once again, the company delivers a refreshing new look at an old play, with the help of a contemporary adaptation by the great Tony Kushner.
The adjective "Brechtian" may not mean much to anyone outside of English majors, comp lit professors, and longtime theater people. But German playwright Bertolt Brecht had a broad influence on contemporary theater — especially of the experimental and political kind. The Good Person Of Szechwan — sometimes translated as The Good Woman or The Good Soul of Szechwan — was a play written late in Brecht's career, during a moment when he was in exile in the US during World War II. The play finds Brecht grappling with the idea that pure "goodness," as defined in religious texts, is a near impossibility in the modern world, in part because it's unrealistic for anyone but a monk to give away anything another person may need, or come asking for.
Kushner obviously saw potential in tweaking the story for contemporary audiences, and his adaptation, based on a new translation by Wendy Arons, is the one used in Eric Ting's delightful new production at the California Shakespeare Theater.
The play centers on a sex worker — she introduces herself as such after a character calls her a prostitute, by way of a Brechtian hand-lettered paper sign flashed at the audience — name Shen Te (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), in the fictional Chinese city of Szechwan. (Ting has all the actors pronounce it with a flat Middle American "setch-wan," noting humorously via another paper sign "Brecht Never Went to China.") When three gods arrive in the city asking for a place to stay, a humble water-seller named Wang (the marvelous Lance Gardner) tries to get them beds in a number of homes before finally asking Shen Te if they could share her hovel, and she agrees, despite needing to service a client that night to make a living.
The gods (referred to also as "awakened ones") decide that Shen Te is in fact the only good person they've found on earth, and because of this, they reward her with money so that she can stop selling her body. She uses the money to open a small tobacco shop, at which time she's immediately descended upon by former landlords, their extended family, a former tenant in the space, and a whole impoverished troupe of beggars in need of food and shelter. It's not until she disguises herself and assumes the persona of her tougher, colder (male) cousin Shui Ta that Shen Te is able to manage the situation and say no to people seeking to take advantage of her.
Brecht complicates the story further by introducing love into the mix, showing via the Shakespearean disguise device how Shen Te learns the wicked ways of a lover, only to fall back into his arms when she takes the mask off, because her love for him trumps the possibility that he may not love her.
Throughout the play Brecht has us making calculations — 200 silver dollars here, 300 silver dollars there — as Shen Te negotiates her way out of and back into debt, and ultimately has to build a business while disguised as a man, forcing her friends into labor, in order to get back in the black.
It's no simple story — and it takes three hours and change to tell it — and in true Brechtian style, the characters are constantly breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, which is denoted with a consistent sound effect and change of lighting. And speaking of sound, Brecht always incorporated music (some of it bordering on dirge-like) in his plays, but here it's reimagined as spunky performance art, complete with a one- or two-man band off to the side armed with gongs, ukuleles, and slide-whistles.
MacKenzie is a wonder as Shen Te/Shui Ta, frequently using exaggerated physicality to relay the comedy in this farce. And local theater vets Anthony Fusco, Victor Talmadge, and Margo Hall also do wonderful work in an array of character roles. Given the length and intricacy of the text, and the relatively few previews, it perhaps was no surprise that opening night on Saturday was rife with line flubs and stumbles, but hopefully that will improve during the run.
All told, this production of The Good Person of Szechwan feels fresh and alive, and not at all dreary in the ways that Brecht has come to connote. This notion of goodness, while it feels almost precious in today's political climate, is nevertheless still something worth grappling with — in a world full of need and neediness, how is it even possible? Even the "awakened ones" in this telling equivocate, hedge, and tell Shen Te to stop over-thinking things. She's good enough, they say, and they're sticking by that, even if she had to cut a few corners along the way. Even if she was made miserable doing so. Even if the task itself seems unfair and beside the point when there's so much in the world that needs fixing — and so much in the world that rewards doing bad.
The Good Person of Szechwan plays at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda through July 21. Find tickets here, and remember to bring a pre-show picnic and arrive early to dine in the grove. Wine and snacks are also welcome in the amphitheater — and dress warmly.