‘The Good Woman of Setzuan’ a serious exploration of serious issues that never takes itself too seriously
SU Drama’s production provides a rollicking good time — and remains true to Bertolt Brecht’s theatrical vision
Upon entry into the cozy confines of the Loft Theater on the second floor of the Syracuse Stage/Drama Complex, I was immediately struck by the music being lightly played over the loudspeaker as audience members took their seats. After a few moments I was pretty sure I was listening to Yat-Kha — a band that mixes heavy metal and hard rock with traditional Tuvan-style “throat singing.”
The sound was other-worldly and provided a perfect segue to Director Felix Ivanov’s vision of The Good Woman of Setzuan as relevant and up-to-date with contemporary cultural forms — using musical instruments and props to advance Brecht’s ideas about alienation and Epic Theater to the sensibilities of a 21st-century audience.
To Brecht, theater was not an art form to be enjoyed passively. His goal was to create an explicitly political theatrical form that forced the audience to do the intellectual work required to recognize problems inherent in the structure of the modern world — which to Brecht meant the inequalities and injustices of capitalism. Yet despite his trenchant political goals and avant-garde theatrical structure, Brecht produced plays that are wonderfully enjoyable as well intellectually challenging. I was impressed and pleased that the Syracuse Drama’s current production was successful on both counts.
For Brecht, setting was one of the first steps in this process. These should appear strange and unfamiliar to the audience, which he often accomplishes through settings foreign to his native Germany. The China presented in his play is not a realistic rendering of any actual place, but rather a foreign space that allows the audience to the see the action and society being presented in a new light. The current production, which runs through April 13, accomplishes this goal through a mix of set design, costuming and sound design.
Leanna Barlow’s set was an enigmatic mixture of urban detritus and recognizably far-Eastern iconography. So too was Kevin O’Connor’s sound, which like the music played at the start of the play captured a mixture of far-eastern gongs, world music styled percussion, Casio keyboard, religious sounding ethereal singing — and rap. The striking costumes designed by Jess Feder were also a mélange, comprising Chinese silken jackets, Western business suits, theatrical masks and rags. Taken together, the space created for the play was largely unrecognizable and destabilizing to the audience.
Brecht felt strongly that actors should remain recognizably separate from the roles they played. Actors should narrate rather than inhabit their roles. He did not want the audience to suspend their disbelief and passively consume the play. Brecht, rather than creating distance between the character and the actor, hoped to keep viewers aware that they were watching a play purposefully constructed for them. With this goal in mind, the acting was, by and large, marvelous.
The exaggeratedly athletic acting of Craig Kober (Wong), Seth Landau (Shu Fu), Thomas Countz (the Carpenter) and Melissa Beaird (Nephew and Old Lady) struck a near-perfect pitch. Their overly expressive body positions, movements and stances struck a balance whereby the audience became hyper-aware of their acting and movements, but never quite able to connect them seamless with their roles. I was forced to constantly think about how they were representing their characters and what each role might suggest about the world being presented. Indeed, their gestures provided the audience with insights that would have been inexpressible through words alone.
The lion’s share of praise for this performance belongs to Jesse Roth, who plays the roles of Shen Te and Shui Ta. As Shen Te, Roth plays the eponymous good woman: a young prostitute that is the only person in Setzuan willing to extend hospitality to a trio of roaming gods. The gods reward her for this goodness by providing her money to start a tobacco shop.
Once the shop opens, though, Shen Te’s goodness gets in the way of her success. She is repeatedly taken advantage of by impoverished locals, her landlord, the man she falls in love with and others. To protect herself and survive, Shen Te impersonates a fictional cousin: the ruthless businessman, Shui Ta. Herein lies the core of Brecht’s critique of modern society. To Brecht, the very structure of society under capitalism makes it impossible to be a good person (or even a complete person in touch with her or his humanity).
The only way that Shen Te can survive is to split into two separate people — and this requires deft acting. As Shen Te, Roth presents a sweet and caring character whose capacity to love is virtually boundless. She knows that her lover Yang Sun (Andrew Garret) is a scoundrel, yet she also realizes it is only through her love for him that she can grab a snippet of joy and human connection. Roth manages to convey without allowing the audience to fully identify her with her character. She is able to portray the image of an individual exploited by the cruel systems of the surrounding world (be it the misogyny of Yan Sun, the empty religiosity of the gods or the cruel practices of the business world).
Once Roth’s character puts on the mask of Shui Ta (her transformation is marked by donning a literal mask), she is transformed into a marker of ruthless and uncaring business. The body language of her stance becomes domineering, the inflection of her voice becomes powerful and manipulative, and her movements become authoritative and controlling. Roth seamlessly transitions between these seemingly incompatible roles with aplomb.
As the action of play pushes toward its conclusion (a trial to decide the fate of Shui Ta), it is punctuated regularly by song, dance and comedic moments. In typical Brecht-ian fashion, the song breaks give the viewer pause to contemplate the issues presented in the play. The women’s song (a song about the dangers of love sung by all the female cast members) clearly notes the particular ways in which women are disproportionately disempowered by the structure of the modern world. This song comes right after Shen Te and Yang Sun have begun their relationship, and provides a still-relevant critique of gender relations in the modern world.
Near the end of the play the three gods (Adam Segrave, Brian Sandstrom and Sam Odell) perform a song full of empty platitudes. This provides a vicious critique of the self-serving and clueless religiosity represented by the gods. This song is especially notable because of the powerful singing voice of Adam Segrave, whose ethereal voice would be welcome in any church choir. The style of the song, coupled with Segrave’s voice, give the critique it renders an even stronger impact.
It would be easy to assume that this production — with its political critiques, experimental acting and avant-garde staging — would be inaccessible to many, or at the very least, a purely cerebral theatrical experience. It is, however, anything but that.
The performance is punctuated by numerous (and uproarious) outbursts of laughter from the audience. As narrator, Ben Odom delights the audience at the beginning of the play delivering a comical rap version of the typical theater instructions (turn off your electronic devices and note the exits). After opening the curtain, we see the characters in freeze frame, and — in a brilliant updating of Brecht’s use of multiple forms of media — uses his remote control to “start” the play. (The remote control will be a repeating gag that is used to great effect throughout the play.) Odom ends the action of the play by “pausing” it in the middle of a tense crowd scene in the courtroom, thereby forcing the audience to draw their own conclusions.
SU Drama’s The Good Woman of Setzuan is not without its flaws. There were several dropped lines and not all the actors appeared comfortable with Brecht’s notion of distancing and estrangement with respect to the acting. I found myself occasionally thinking that a few of the actors were too seamlessly into their roles. But these are small quibbles that only briefly detracted from a wonderful theatrical experience.
For those looking to appreciate this play to the fullest, and better understand Brecht’s ideas about theater, I suggest arriving a few minutes early to read John Whalen’s informative article (“It’s Nor Easy Being Good”) in the printed program.
The Good Woman of Setzuan provides a serious exploration of serious issues that never takes itself too seriously, and I greatly enjoyed watching this play performed so vibrantly in the intimate setting of The Loft.
It is an experience not to be missed.
What: The Good Woman of Setzuan by Bertolt Brecht
Who: Syracuse University Drama Department
Where: The Loft Theatre, SU Drama Theater Complex, 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse
Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday, Mar. 28, 2014 (opening night)
Remaining performances: Plays through April 13
Length: About 2 hours and 30 minutes, including 15 minute intermission
Tickets: $19, $17 Students; call 315-443-3275 or vpa.syr.edu/drama
Family guide: Adult humor, adult situations, adult themes
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