The Playgoer: REVIEW: The Good Person of Szechwan

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

REVIEW: The Good Person of Szechwan

Brecht's Epic He/She: Taylor Mac as Shin Te and Shui Ta.

Taylor Mac is giving the performance of the year down at La MaMa in The Good Person of Szechwan. And unfortunately most of you will not get to see it. This low-budget revival of the Brecht classic (co-produced by La MaMa and the Foundry Theatre) has sold out its one-month run in its 199-seat house and will probably have difficulty extending or "moving" any time soon due to Showcase Code restrictions. (Which I assume was how this was produced* [*update: see comments section for more].) Oh well. Maybe with enough resources and flexibility from Equity, Foundry and La MaMa will some day be able to share with the public this rare American Brecht staging that will not leave you wondering why anyone ever made a fuss about Brecht in the first place.

Until then, I'll do my best to describe what's so special here, starting with Lear deBessonet--a barely-30 director who has been consistently working around the edges of the downtown and nonprofit scenes for at least five years now. I first became aware of her in her first Brecht outing, Saint Joan of the Stockyards at PS122 in 2007. There, too, on a shoestring budget and Showcase Code cast, deBessonet forged ahead with her eccentric but crystal clear vision of a difficult play. What delighted me was not only that someone had successfully resurrected this totally forgotten (and admittedly odd) early Brecht gem, but had also infused it with a totally genuine contemporary American pop sensibility without flinching from the play's politics at all. The key was Kristen Sieh's winning performance of Joan as an honest-to-God happy Christian, an interpretation amplified by a live bluegrass score which situated that religiosity in a recognizable and playable down-home context.

DeBessonet--who has spoken about the challenges of bringing good-faith spirituality into our atheistic theatre culture--may have miffed some Brecht purists for not treating Joan's preaching with snyde sarcasm. But her concept worked because Brecht--while no believer--was himself clearly fascinated with religion, which is why he wrote so much about it in his plays. Even a Marxist must admit and contend with the power of that "opiate of the masses." In Brecht's work--and especially in Szechwan--religion is often the countervailing force to capitalism, just an ultimately ineffectual one. In Sieh's performance, Joan's likability and infectious optimism made her tragic failure at the end all the more heartbreaking.

Szechwan may be a more well known and frequently produced play than Joan. But that doesn't mean it's any easier to pull off. At least in most performances I've seen. This relatively late Brecht drama (as well as the similar, almost interchangeably produced Caucasian Chalk Circle) always comes off in performance as stiff, grey, and interminable "epic theatre" that occasionally tries (with great labor) to be fun. Despite the lively elements in its story, the sheer length and wordiness of most translations--combined with a prevailing tendency to play such a "classic" with the solemnity of Shakespeare--often weighs down what is, at heart, a simple fable, a folk take. What this production does that I haven't seen anyone else do, is strip away a lot of the dead weight (even efficiently cutting many walk-on characters) and restore the folk tale element--even down to childrens-theatre tiny cardboard houses that populate Matt Saunders' outwardly makeshift set. The show plays here with the energy of a commedia farce--further enabled by an almost bare stage of planks, quick-change costumes, and lots of direct audience address (and solicitation). I knew this production had a chance when the play's quasi-narrator, the often-annoying water-boy, Wang, delivered his opening monologue entering down the aisle...and was funny!  Actor David Turner--one of the many eccentric players DeBessonet has populated the cast with--deserves much credit for setting and sustaining the joyous yet caustic tone of the evening.

Speaking of tone, much of it is also supplied by yet another contemporary on-stage band DeBessonet has recruited, The Lisps. Their eclectic score ranges from rockabilly to Motown to garage-rock, constantly bringing the story into the now, even while DeBessonet and her designers always pay winking homage to the story's early-industrial Chinese setting. (Much fun is had throughout with scattered red petals.) As in her Saint Joan, DeBessonet's use of local dive-bar bands reconnects with the cabaret impulse in Brecht's use of music. It helps here that the Lisps' specialty seems to be percussion, used to consistently jarring, stirring, dare I say even "alienating" effect.

But let's get back to Taylor Mac. In case you didn't know, casting a man in the starring role of Shen Tei is not the norm. Shin Tei is a young prostitute who begins almost as a deliberately "hooker with a heart of gold" cliche. She is also one of the great female roles in modern European theatre. But since she spends a good third of the play in the guise of her invented alter-ego, "Mr. Shui Ta," one can see the temptation to cast such a gender-bending male performer as Mac (who has made a career downtown and in cabaret exploring gender and sexual identities in his own devised pieces.) The choice brings up some of the same issues faced when dealing with how all those Shakespearean "breeches parts" (Rosalind, Viola) were all written for boys playing women playing boys! Recent all-male Shakespeare productions (especially by English troupes Cheek by Jowl, Propeller, and The Globe) have reminded us of some of the lost dynamics built into those plays' original casting. (For instance, the men who interact with Rosalind as "Ganymede" or Viola as "Cesario" don't seem like gullible idiots any more.)

Brecht of course did not write Shen Tei for a man or boy, or a queer/trans icon like Mac. But without taking anything away from the fine actresses who have played the role (I still remember Cherry Jones at A.R.T. in 1987!), something special here happens when Mr. Shui Ta appears on the scene. "He" becomes very convincing!  Bursting onto the stage with an almost goosestep authority to a martial drumbeat, dressed as a classic Weimar-era pinstriped and bowler-hat capitalist, Mac makes quite a chilling entrance.

Or should I say, Shen Tei does. Because one thing this casting "trick" reveals is how good an actress Shen Tei has to be to pull this "act" off. (She has to invent Shui Ta to be the ruthless "bad cop" businessman to her more charitable "good cop" storekeeper when she can no longer do good works without going broke.) Obviously it doesn't take only a male actor to play a male convincingly. But rarely have I seen an actress cast in the role who can. (As a female "lead," Shin Te is often lazily cast with either a classic ingenue or a Shavian/Ibsenite "strong woman" who can get one side of the character but not the other.)

Then again, the issue isn't really being "convincing" in any naturalistic sense. Because Brecht deliberately set up this built-in "play acting" in his story in order to model his acting ideals--which called for the performer to both credibly inhabit and comment upon the character simultaneously. (Brecht wants us to see Shin Tei  "performing" her idea of "The Businessman.") Taylor Mac does this brilliantly not because he is a man, but because he is a powerful and (in the best sense of the word) self-aware performer. We see the soul-crushing effort it takes Shen Tei to become this monster. (She doesn't do it as just a lark.) So not only is Taylor Mac good enough to convince us he's Shin Tei; this Shin Tei turns out to be so good an actress that she can convince us she's...well, Taylor Mac!

There is a spellbinding moment towards the end of the first act where this whole Brechtian "genderfuck" comes together and fuels the argument of the play. It's during one of Shin Tei's songs. (Yes, these late Brecht plays are musicals, too. As if they weren't hard enough!) The song is the one that's sometimes translated as "The Song of Defenselessness" (I couldn't catch in this show's version) and in it she rails against the gods for leaving her to shoulder the burden of tending to the poor. But theatrically, Brecht undermines her self-pity by showing her donning Shui Ta's "mask" all the same, even while she claims she doesn't want to. What DeBessonet and Mac (and The Lisps in one of their most aggressively rocking selections) do with these few instructions takes the idea to the hilt. Mac, beginning as Shen Tei, strips off her feminine garments and--all the while singing at full voice at breathtaking speed--begins to don the black pinstriped suit and mustachioed visage of her alter-ego and self-inflicted nemesis. When the song climaxes, the transformation is complete--Shen Tei has become Shui Ta right before our eyes, and not just in clothes. Mac lands immediately in the next scene--in full Shui Ta mode--without even a pause for applause.

Such transformation of character before our eyes was a favorite device of Brecht's. In Galileo we watch the sensible priest who once supported the scientist turn against him in the course of one scene--a scene in which he is enrobed as the new Pope. ("The clothes make the man" must have been a favorite expression of Bert's.) One of Brecht's many challenges to "Aristotelian" conventions was his rejection of "character" as a stable entity. While most playwrights have striven to "develop" characters who are "consistent," even when they are challenged by a cruel world, Brecht saw mankind as utterly mutable given the circumstances. (Marxism, after all, is premised on the primacy of material circumstances in shaping all aspects of our lives.) Hence, in this story, we can't just easily excuse Shen Tei for doing the cruel things she does as Shui Ta. She is changed by the process. Struggle though she does, she has learned to accept "the lesser evil." Her tragedy is not that of a John Proctor, going to the gallows with his "dignity" intact, the way so few of us do in real life. No, like most of us poor souls, she does what she needs to do to survive, no matter how shitty she feels about it.

I'll stop there. Suffice it to say that DeBessonet and Mac's work here did much to clarify this conflict in the play. And "clarify" is the apt word here. Rarely have I seen such a lucid, uncluttered, streamlined staging of one of the Brecht epic tragedies. Think how hard it is to pull off Mother Courage, too. I look forward to DeBessonet scaling that mountain in the near future--perhaps starring the indomitable Lisa Kron, who also appears here, hilariously, in two supporting roles. (Shen Tei's mother-in-law, let's just say, arrives in Sezchwan by way of the L.I.E.) After the sententious "Mother Meryl" in the Park a while back, I would welcome this director's eclectic, irreverent, yet thoroughly text-grounded "Brecht 2.0" remix.

(PS. You can see Mac give an in-studio approximation of his moving closing speech as Shin Tei in the Times' "In Performance" video series.)


RLewis said...

Just going by the budget, including health & pension contributions, in the program, I don't know if one can assume "Showcase Code restrictions". Which by the way, I thought was a neat, and appropriate for this show, to put their budget in the program. Also, 'sure have missed this kind of smart blog writing. Congrats Doc'. -R

Playgoer said...

Thanks, Ralph! And thanks for pointing out that budget printed in the program. What a fantastic thing for Foundry to do! Really shows the audience the cost of the art.... And you're right, it does NOT look like a mere Showcase budget. I stand corrected.

ferick said...

Good performances and the reviews were good .. I like his makeup. whether bercht very popular in America??

Playgoer said...

Good News-- This production will have another life after all: the Public Theatre has scheduled it for its 2013-2014 season. Playgoer's calls were answered!