Ever since the Wizard warned Dorothy and her pals to "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," audiences have been intrigued by the machinery of artifice. Playwright Bertolt Brecht's mission was to expose these theatrical devices to facilitate intellectual debate. Based in Marxist theories of socialism, Brecht's plays use a variety of "alienating" devices, such as signs announcing scene locations, songs that contradict mood or action, and actors who step in and out of character. Each of these techniques is designed to disrupt audience expectations and challenge their views of art and life.
Ripples of Brecht's work are so widespread that television shows (Moonlighting, Ally McBeal) and Broadway musicals (Urinetown) freely sample his self-referential style and unexpected musical interludes. Washington University's Performing Arts Department tackles one of Brecht's classics, The Good Person of Szechwan, in a beautifully designed production that takes itself a bit too seriously.
The Good Person of Szechwan tells of three gods visiting Earth in search of just one good person. After numerous failures, they select the prostitute Shen Teh as their representative of all earthly good. Giving her a gift of money to start her own business, the gods fade to the background to watch Shen Teh struggle against the overwhelming poverty that plagues the people of Szechwan. "How can one be good when everything is so expensive?" she wails. Unable to say no to anyone asking for help, Shen Teh watches her business fail and all her potential for "good" fade away. So she creates an alter ego, her business-minded cousin "Shui Ta," who rids her house of freeloading thieves and conducts shady deals so that Shen Teh can continue her charitable giving.
Interspersed with the story of Shen Teh are songs and scene changes that are the most interesting parts of the production. Contemporary music, strobe lights, energetic dancing and humorous lyrics underscore Brecht's socialist themes, while screen projections flash everything from quotes by Marx to information on the current number of children dying daily from hunger. If director William Whitaker had been able to drive the scenes with the same intensity as these interludes, the whole production would have sizzled. Sadly, the story drags, as actors spend more time reciting stilted dialogue than presenting characters in a situation.
It's not clear whether the bland acting style is a deliberate choice or simply a byproduct of working with student actors. Some directors feel that Brecht was against any "realistic" acting and, pointing to his diatribes against evoking audience emotion, have their actors always remain somehow distant from their roles. But a production in which character choices and transitions seem unbelievable does evoke audience emotion: frustration. This feeling disengages the audience from the very issues Brecht wanted them to think about.
The Good Person is visually exciting: Every cranny of the wide, deep Edison stage is used, and costume designers Micah Joseph Beck and Bonnie Kruger have fun with an eclectic variety of color combinations and styles. In the challenging title role, Deepti Ramakrishnan looks convincingly waiflike as Shen Teh and transforms into a believably stern Shui Ta. The large cast creates great crowd atmosphere and excels in an appropriately gritty opium den scene.
The epilogue speaker says, "Our play will fail if you can't recommend it." This is Brecht at his best and worst. For if we don't recommend the play, are we saying that finding solutions to poverty and evil are unimportant? But if we do, are we recommending it only because the playwright manipulated us into doing so?
The Good Person of Szechwan is exactly the right choice for a university theater -- few professional companies could or would mount it. It's important for audiences and students alike to have the opportunity to tangle with Brecht. His attempts to create a theater that stimulates intellect more than emotion may have led to more arguments in theater circles than the efforts of any other playwright/theorist. How (and if) his plays should be performed may not be the debate Brecht was hoping for, but it's the one the audience was engaged in as they left this production.