The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Bertolt Brecht's Galileo earlier this year was terrific, but it wasn't really Brecht. Much truer to the spirit of the radical German playwright is CityStage Ensemble's testy, uneven production of The Good Person of Szechwan. Too long, sometimes annoying and certainly abrasive, this show nevertheless startles complacency, spits on capitalism (a favorite Brechtian convention the Denver Center failed to catch), and demonstrates how goodness is punished and wickedness rewarded in a corrupt society. CityStage is not afraid to get in your face, though its confrontational style doesn't always work--the first act drags a bit here and there. But the whole show perks up in the second act, and the big finish does indeed wow.
As the show opens, the high gods need to locate just one good person on Earth to justify the mess they've made of creation. Three of them descend to Earth to search; in director Terry Burnsed's version, they arrive as Marlene Dietrich, Chairman Mao and Elvis Presley. Alas, the only good person they find is a prostitute named Shen Te--a woman who's so good she's stupid. She feeds her starving neighbors, squanders the gold the gods give her trying to help others, and falls in love with a ne'er-do-well pilot, giving him the money she's borrowed from a poor elderly couple so he can bribe officials and get a good job. She makes a mess of everything she tries to do.
As a result, her personality splits in two, and her tyrannical "cousin," Shui Ta, emerges to set her up in business again. He establishes a factory where others can slave all day for subsistence wages. He's the pitiless backbone Shen Te lacks as her true self, the mask behind which she must hide in order to be effective, and it's hard to tell if Brecht is satirizing the exploitive policies of capitalism or rationalizing communism's ruthless belief that "the ends justify the means." Maybe both.
Then, too, Burnsed has his own agenda with this work--which appears to be an angry denunciation of both communism and capitalism for their demonstrated brutalities. He even has an actor raise a placard denouncing the atrocities committed at Tiananmen Square.
Burnsed's program notes also remind us that Brecht's choice of China for the play's setting says more about his own arrogance than it does about Chinese culture, since he viewed Asia as an exotic fantasy land he could use to illuminate the Occidental plight. Burnsed mocks Brecht's Western bias (a tactic that, perversely, might have pleased the old comrade) with exaggerated eye makeup and yellow face paint. The costumes are mainly modified men's pajamas, which, like the face paint, underscore Brecht's ethnocentric paternalism.
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Because Brecht wanted his audiences to think rather than identify with the characters in the usual suspension of disbelief, his plays are always alienating. Characters are irritating, repulsive or bungling--including the seminal figure who helps move the story along, the Water Seller, played with deliberate obnoxiousness by Marc Seidenfeld. The Good Person herself is equally grating. Gina Wencel, as always, is a magnetic figure. As the naive Shen Te, she is absolutely aggravating in all the right places, and as the pushy cousin, Shui Ta, she radiates a nasty efficiency. And David Fenerty is consistently amusing in several roles, but especially as the Policeman--a Thirties Hollywood comic (W.C. Fields comes to mind), Szechwan style. Best of all is Gwylym Cano as the Third God (Elvis) and as Yang Sun, Shen Te's pilot lover. His Elvis impersonation is sometimes hilariously realistic and at other times innovative. He's one of those actors you can't take your eyes off of when they grace a stage.
These three actors help buoy a show that has too many weak links. Young Sarah Lowenstein does a nice job as a teenybopper with a mouth on her, but the rest of the cast members are less sure-footed with the demands Burnsed has made on them. Still, you have to give the whole company "snaps" for their courageous theatrical effort--doing Brecht as Brecht is very difficult. The temptation to soften his harsh didacticism with naturalistic performances is great. And Brecht's language is so beautiful that it sometimes sounds like street poetry, which often leads to his plays being staged with more sympathetic magic than he would have cared for. Burnsed and company stay true to Brecht's spirit and character without compromising their own skepticism for propaganda. Neat trick.
The Good Person of Szechwan, through July 14 at Jack's Theatre, 1553 Platte Street, No. 202, 433-8082.