Though Bertolt Brecht began drafting the play that would become The Good Woman of Szechuan (or "Setzuan," as in this production) in the 1920s, he only completed it in Finland in 1941, where he and his family fled after leaving Nazi Germany. And Finland was a temporary stop before his American sojourn, where he continued to fuss over and tinker with the work. The play's lack of coherence therefore isn't surprising, though the philosophical question it poses is definitely in the style of preceding Brecht works (Galileo and Mother Courage), although with a twist. Can a single person make a difference in a corrupt world, and how much does the world resist that soul?
Here, there's no rebellious genius in the foreground or backdrop of war, though Brecht envisioned a Weimaresque version of the seamy purlieux of Szechuan, where mendicants and criminals provide a veritable 3-yen opera of comic types. When three gods visit this wretched neighborhood in search of a "good person," only Shen Te, a remarkably guileless prostitute, is worthy of monetary reward. She buys a tobacco shop (responsible capitalism), which is then overrun with the local starving class, who shamelessly mooch (unchecked socialism). Her only recourse is to contrive a doppelgänger, her male cousin Shui Ta (reasonable fascism), who sweeps the beggars back onto the street. S/he also discovers the true feelings of love interest/grounded pilot Sun Yang for Shen Te. It's no surprise that she's reluctant to resume female garb.
Though noted Brecht interpolators Eric Bentley and John Willett have wrestled with this sprawling script, the University Theatre at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville has chosen a version by Tony Kushner (Angels in America). It has an unwieldy, self-referential structure but restores the wedding scene that Brecht removed during his stay in America. It's also rife with platitudinous asides: "Those who have little give the most"; "The hungry dog pulls the cart faster." This version is set in 2010, in "a city filled with corruption, pollution, greed, and extreme poverty -- in a word, Capitalistic and Nihilistic," writes director Lisa C. Bandele. Set designer C. Otis Sweezey has created an urban wasteland reminiscent of Blade Runner that includes a back-projection screen (across which glide Art History 101 canvases and homemade versions of same), as well as numerous laddered platforms and risers swagged in dark rags, all energetically pushed and pulled by the cast to create a plethora of settings denoted with Brechtian placards.
The only bright spot is a smudged-out Coke machine and godly trio (Nathan Ryan Milford, Bryan Welser and Alfred DeGrand, decked in glittery vestments and frequently accompanied by throbbing industrial backbeat). Oh, and Randall Middleton as Wang the Waterseller, who actually has half-a-clue on how to deliver these stilted words in a production that's all volume and no mass or depth. Brecht has never been regarded as a particularly subtle playwright, and Lord knows our institutions of higher learning fall about this didactic stuff like it's, well, Arthur Miller. The trick with Brecht is finding the life and humor in this expressionistic satire -- alas, director Bandele and her student troupe have settled on a posture of equal parts reverence and obliviousness.
The Good Woman of Setzuan continues April 14-16.