Theater Review | Cal Shakes’ “The Good Person of Szechwan” is smart participatory theater
By Lou Fancher
Graced by Tony Kushner’s crystalline adaptation based on a translation by Wendy Arons, The Good Person of Szechwan is Brechtian theater at its best: deeply thoughtful, crisp, darkly comic, biting at social convention, and sparked by flashes of brilliance and insight that rarely feel cumbersome.
Performed at Cal Shakes Orinda amphitheater, this is one of Artistic Director Eric Ting’s finest productions.
Delivered in front of scenic designer Michael Locher’s striking, Easter-Island-like block letters spelling out and illuminating the word “GOOD,” a marvelous cast commands multiple roles. Cleverly costumed by Ulises Alcala with nods to contemporary and film fashion—the eclectic outfits range from a water-seller in hi-top sneakers to a cross-dressing faux businesswoman’s Charlie Chaplin suit and beyond. The historic and cinematic references are as layered as lasagna.
There are a few downsides to the abundance of pleasures; the play’s length means the pace lags late in the first act; a few lines trip on tongues in longer scenes or monologues; a hip-hop number is fun, but feels like an unnecessary stretch to reach younger audiences. All are minor infractions, though. Ideas presented and questions posed echo 24 hours later, making it impossible not to think about the play’s final call for action. This is participatory theater with no final curtain.
Brecht’s 1943 parable of evil and good has three gods sent to earth to relieve the people’s extreme poverty and to find one truly good person in a world gone mad for money, food, shelter. Moving seamlessly from Ting’s welcoming curtain-warmer speech at a Sunday matinee, a water-seller (a versatile Lance Gardner) interrupts; not so much breaking the fourth wall by speaking directly to the audience (a signature feature of Brecht’s plays), but by never erecting a wall at all.
We soon meet sex worker Shen Te (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie bubbles like an Asian Mary Tyler Moore), who agrees to house the gods, even if it means losing a customer. Her generosity earns reward; enough money from the gods to purchase a small tobacco shop and become a legitimate businessperson. Immediately, Shen Te is beset by predators: a wily female landlord (bearded J Jha in cross-gender role is a howl), a lecherous barber (exuberant Phil Wong, a joy to observe every second he is onstage), greedy family members and an unemployed pilot (steady Armando McClain) who captures her heart.
Forced at last to make a choice between being “good” or making lots of money, Shen Te dons a bowler hat and man’s suit. The shop becomes a factory in which compassion is replaced by all-for-me.
When pushed into making an actual choice between being a malicious profiteer or following her gentle instincts, Shen Te makes a choice. Which brings the play to its’ epilogue, arriving full circle and delivered directly to us by the water-seller in a series of questions and provocative statements.
If we have lived “at the bottom of the barrel,” a reference from the script, will we in times of prosperity be generous to the disadvantaged? Will we be an “Angel of the Outskirts,” like Shen Te? To alleviate hunger, we cannot become gods and make clouds that rain honey (another steal from Brecht), but might we become “tigers” for the homeless and ring the bell of goodness? After all, as Shen Te asks, “Isn’t trampling other people exhausting?” More to the point, giving to others is incredibly uplifting. Why not do more of it?
It is a good question to ask and for a theater company to do so, making people squirm, is courageous. Cheers to Cal Shakes for tugging on that rope, making audiences uncomfortable—and doing it with humor and authentici