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Brecht's Person probes poverty-morality relationship

ON STAGE Good Person of Setzuan Where: Phoenix Theatre, University of Victoria When: Opens tonight, continues to Nov.

ON STAGE

Good Person of Setzuan

Where: Phoenix Theatre, University of Victoria

When: Opens tonight, continues to Nov. 24

Tickets: $13 to $22 (250-721-8000)

The director of a new Bertolt Brecht production hopes it encourages Victorians to consider how our poor are treated.

Conrad Alexandrowicz directs Good Person of Set-zuan, opening tonight at the University of Victoria's Phoenix Theatre. Brecht's 1943 play illustrates how difficult it for the impoverished to behave with integrity within a corrupt society.

"The main point of the play," says Alexandrowicz, "is how can you be a moral person if you don't have enough to eat?"

One of the 20th century's most influential playwrights, Brecht began writing Good Person of Setzuan in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War. A Marxist, he was on the Nazis' list of banned writers. Brecht fled his native Germany, taking refuge in the U.S. in 1941.

The Good Person of Set-zuan was first staged in Switzerland in 1943. It's the story of Shen Te, a young prostitute who is rewarded by the gods for sheltering them. They give her a tobacco shop. Overwhelmed by an influx of poor townsfolk who take advantage of her good fortune and generous nature, Shen Te invents a stern alter ego, Shui Ta, who turfs out the interlopers.

The play's set - designed by Simon Farrow - depicts a slum with a gleaming metropolis in the background. It's a fantasy skyline depicting land-marks from various locales: Shanghai's World Financial Centre, the Orlando Power Station in Soweto and the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lampur.

The notion, says Alexandrowicz, is to suggest Brecht is probing a global problem.

"You've got this megalopolis, the gleaming towers of finance, and all these people living like rats in front of it," said the director, an assistant theatre professor at UVic.

There's no Empress Hotel or Blue Bridge. However, Alexandrowicz said "it is implied" that Good Person of Setzuan takes aim at Victoria as well. The play, set in 19th century China, refers to "the whole province" being impoverished. Alexandrowicz hopes this resonates for B.C., too.

"This whole province is not impoverished, but we have [one of the] highest rates of child poverty in the country. I think that's a pretty shameless statistic that we own," he said. (Until 2010, B.C. had the worst child poverty rate in the country for eight consecutive years, according to Statistics Canada.)

Good Person of Setzuan is difficult to stage. For one thing, it's a long, text-heavy play for 23 actors. And Alexandrowicz has tried to remain true to Brecht's theory of the "alienation effect" (or distancing effect). To prevent audiences from becoming overly emotionally attached to characters, the playwright uses distancing devices. In Good Person of Setzuan, characters will announce scenes or utter stage directions, shattering the illusion of reality.

"The performances are quite large and the main characters are highly drawn and stylized," Alexandrowicz said.

The trick is entertaining the audience while remaining faithful to Brecht's techniques. Alexandrowicz - who directed UVic's acclaimed production of La Ronde in 2009 - is a director with a strong physical theatre/ dance background. With this play, he's trying to emphasize the visuals, for example, jazzing up a sequence in which a character reads out a passage with movement and bold imagery.

And, despite Brecht's highly politicized viewpoint, there's plenty of humour.

"People still crack up who've watched it numerous times," Alexandrowicz said. "They still crack up in the same places."

achamberlain@timescolonist.com