November 14, 2013
The Good Person of Szechwan, playing in Minor Theater this weekend, is not a straightforward theater production by any means. The play thrives on its ambiguity, a fact that may confuse unsuspecting audience members. It doesn’t help that the script itself, written by Bertolt Brecht, has all the thematic subtlety of a power drill to the forehead and more self-righteous speeches than a typical episode of The Newsroom. However, this interpretation of the 1943 play manages to avoid alienating its audience based on the strength of its performances and the willingness of director Carole Bellini-Sharp to experiment with the play’s visuals.
The Good Person of Szechwan focuses on a prostitute named Shen Te, who struggles to open her own tobacco shop in Szechwan. In order to fulfill the expectations of the Gods (yes, the Gods are an onstage presence) that she live a life of virtue, she adopts the male persona of the more business-minded Shui Ta. While Shen Te is beloved by the community, Shui Ta is met with resistance.
Wynn Van Dusen ’15 owns the show as Shen Te, deftly handling the lion’s share of the play’s dialogue. She conveys both the perceived naiveté of Shen Te and the confidence of Shui Tai in a manner that is understated (barring one emotional outburst) yet effective. Shea Crockett ’15 provides a nice contrast as Wang the water seller, a more manic and physical presence onstage. As Shen Te’s would-be suitor and pilot Yang Sun, Brian Evans ’15 presents a complicated portrayal that shifts between anger and benevolence, capturing the ambiguity of the character. The three actors playing the Gods are fitfully quirky, bringing an alien quality to their roles. It is difficult for minor characters to make an impression in what are practically extended cameos. However the ensemble members work hard to imbue their characters with personality in the short time they have.
Good Person thrives thanks to its sight gags. For example, the Gods all have light-up Afros that glow even when the stage is darkened. One of the Gods dresses like he has stolen the wardrobe of an Elvis impersonator, frequently brandishing a fan. The production design is also inventive. Most of the action takes place around a storage crate, which is opened up on different sides to reveal new settings. However, there’s still a question as to how the storage crate relates to the play’s themes. Is it supposed to symbolize the grime of the city? If so, why does everything appear so clean onstage? The sparse set design can also make for confusion, such as when a hot dog stand is used as a substitute for a tree. I was left puzzled as to why one of the characters was lassoing the air in one scene, only to have it pointed out to me later that he was trying to hang himself from the “tree”. I understand being devoted to the text, but a bit more clarity could have helped the play.
Another aspect of the play that doesn’t completely work well is when the characters speak directly to the audience Ferris Bueller-style. As performed by the actors, these asides often come off as cutesy and repetitive (especially when the play is as long as it is).
The play’s musical numbers are truly random. For example, the first act ends with a trio of characters lip-syncing a song with red boas. However, this creates a sense of excitement, as the viewer has no clue what to expect from the next scene. The Good Person of Szechwan is a truly unpredictable play until the final scenes. However, even as the actors file offstage there are questions left lingering. Don’t expect the ending to be emotionally fulfilling—the final lines basically suggest that the audience members come up with their own ending. The point of the play is not neat resolutions, just as the disparity between the personas of Shen Te and Shui Ta isn’t resolved. The Good Person of Szechwan is a play that is unafraid of risks. Just for that alone, it is worth seeing.