The Good Person of Setzuan
Where: Phoenix Theatre (Chief Dan George Theatre)
When: To Nov. 24
Rating: 3 1 /2 (out of five)
The Good Person of Setzuan is as relevant today as it was 70 years ago. Bertolt Brecht's parable play, first performed in 1943, investigates the corrupting influences of commerce and poverty.
And that stuff never goes out of vogue.
Shen Te, the street-walking anti-heroine of The Good Person of Setzuan, declares she'd like to be good but "how do I make ends meet?" This echoes Brecht's sentiment from The Threepenny Opera: "First comes a full stomach, then comes ethics."
The University of Victoria's theatre department has opened a visually striking and, at times, entertaining version of The Good Person of Setzuan. That said, contemporary audiences won't find this the easiest play to digest. It's long (more than 2 1 /2 hours), wordy and at times, painfully earnest.
Still, for the thoughtful playgoer, there are rewards.
It's directed by Conrad Alexandrowicz, who in 2009 dazzled audiences with his lively production of La Ronde.
Alexandrowicz, with a strong background in physical theatre and dance, has toiled hard to make Good Person of Setzuan a visual delight. He and his design team do succeed, although perhaps not as completely and cohesively as with La Ronde.
Shen Te, nicely played by VÃ©ronique Piercy, is a "good" person living in a garbage-strewn Chinese slum. To survive, she's become a fishnet-stockinged prostitute. Generously, she offers three travelling strangers a place to stay for the night. They turn out to be gods, who reward Shen Te with money to buy a tobacco shop.
Her good fortune attracts fellow slum dwellers, who demand handouts as though it's their due. Shen Te complies at first, but then realizes she'll lose everything. So she develops an alter ego, Shui Ta, a hard-nosed businessman who boots out the interlopers and sets about making the store profitable. To do this, Shui Ta peddles a product much more potent than tobacco.
Shen Te's literally split personality (she wears a disguise as Shui Ta) illustrates Brecht's belief that the pursuit of both wealth and goodness are incompatible. The gods, like naïve politicians, seem surprised that throwing money at a poor person creates problems. One asks: "What does business have to do with living an upright and dignified life?"
A well-rehearsed student cast of 23 manages the challenging script quite nicely. Piercy plays Shen Te as a believably forthright person, while her Shui Ta musters the requisite backbone for a hard-nosed business type. Kale Penny plays Wang the water-seller with flair and the right balance of humour and pathos.
Alex Frankson interprets Yang Sun, an out-of-work pilot, with cheesy Burt Reynolds-style swagger. It works to a degree, although tapping into a stereotype also has a stifling effect.
Alexandrowicz has added contemporary dance/movement flourishes to the play that work very well. For instance, a gang of street people trudges onstage single file - arms on each other's shoulders - to seek charity, then exits in the same manner when denied. Bouts of fisticuffs are enacted in exaggerated comic-book style.
There's wit and humour to this approach. Alexandrowicz strives to overcome aspects of the play (the flatness of the dialogue, its curious formality, the sheer length) that today's audiences will find daunting. It's a valiant effort that, in part, succeeds.
An inspired touch is having actors wear armbands linking them to corporations. Those worn by the gods advertise Facebook and Google. The bad characters are linked to controversial companies such as Enbridge and Monsanto. Ordinary characters wear armbands that say Coca Cola, Ikea and Wal-Mart. This ties Brecht's parable to present day; these are the corporate forces that shape our world.
In The Good Person of Setzuan we see Brecht's efforts to distance the audience (in theory, so we can absorb the message unclouded by emotion). With this in mind, scenes are announced by actors, e.g., "Wang the water-seller introduces himself." Actors sometimes address the audience directly.
That approach may sound politicized and bloodless, but it's counteracted by the humour in this show. Actors are encouraged to "play funny" when appropriate (notably Derek Wallis as a barber and Christie Stewart as Mrs. Shin).
One of the play's most impressive aspects is Simon Farrow's spectacular set. It's a monumental configuration, with gleaming towers of commerce in the background and the slum in the foreground. The latter is dominated by a rust-coloured, corrugated-metal hut that's both functional and attractive.
© Copyright 2013