What is a good person? How are they defined? By the Commandments? By charity? By faith? By love? By doing the best they can?
It is a simple question that, when fully manifested into the mind, takes on profound proportions. And it is this simple question upon which Bertolt Brecht built his dramatic parable, The Good Person of Setzuan.
Opening next Thursday at the Schwartz Center under the vision of guest director Joanna Settle, The Good Person of Setzuan (or sometimes Woman, depending on the translation) is one of the towering dramatic works of the 20th century. Along with Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht has had perhaps the most resonant and lasting impact on modern drama, his influence extending to everything from avant-garde fringe theatre in London to the French New Wave. And, while not as well known as Brecht’s masterwork, Mother Courage, The Good Person is an outrageous and devastating piece of theatre whose message is more prescient than ever.
“We have an idea in this country that there’s a way to be good an a way to be bad,” says Settle. “But is that right? Can you be good your whole life? You have to narrow the scope of what you see as good. We just had a presidential election decided not on economics, not on civil rights, the Constitution or lying, but on issues of morality. People want protection from what they view as amoral. It’s very interesting. We are functioning on a narrow definition of whether someone is good or not.”
Taking us to the imagined landscape of Setzuan, a city caught in the mores of penury and desperation, three gods (Gia Crovatin, Sirisha Nandipati and Lydia Froncek), pulled from the dogmas of Old Testament pedantics, descend onto the streets. With an unwilling and terrified guide named Wong (Matt Volner ’06), they seek to find one good person who will give them shelter. That person is Shen Te (Sarah K. Chalmers), a young woman who prostitutes herself only because there is no other way to make a living. As a sign of their gratitude, the gods leave her just enough money to purchase a tobacco shop and leave prostitution.
But that is where the play departs into a moral paradox. Shen Te wants to be a good person, but the people she treats with kindness give only take advantage of her. She quickly discerns the nature of her world, a moral vacuum where survival is measured by how much you can take. What’s worse, Shen Te soon discovers that she is pregnant, and must bring a child into the greed and squalor surrounding her.
Thus enters her “cousin,” Mr. Shui Ta (Chalmers), a shrewd social Darwinist who handles and improves Shen Te’s business affairs with a callous efficiency. Shen Te is horrified by Shui Ta’s cruel pragmatism in achieving his ends by any means, but it becomes painfully evident that she and her unborn child cannot without him.
“They are very different, ” Chalmers comments on her roles as Shen Te and Shui Ta. “It’s a big challenge. Shen Te creates this other person, but it’s from herself. It’s all to the same end. Once she finds out she’s pregnant, it’s all over. That’s the real turning point in her. She decides, alright, this one person she’ll be good to, this person inside of her.”
It would seem that Shen Te is categorically amoral, as she increasingly calls on Shui Ta to execute business maneuvers. But that’s exactly the trap Brecht demands the audience not fall into. According to the archaic laws of the gods, she is a bad person. But the gods admittedly “never meddle with economics,” and in the fiscal depravity of Shen Te’s world, their rigid definitions of “good” become strained.
“Shui Ta’s function for Shen Te is to come in and get it back on track for her,” says Chalmers. “He’s strong, he won’t take no for an answer, he gets what he wants. He’s her opposite, which we all have. Depending on how self-aware you are, everybody has that dilemma within themselves. You have to choose to be kind. It takes less thought to be mean. Shen Te says ‘meanness is just a form of clumsiness.'”
In imagining Brecht’s world, Settle and set designer Kent Getz have created a slum world replete with slanted, angular edifices of aluminum, abstract slashes of graffiti and garbage. The area immediately below the stage where Wong lives is a mass of tangled wires, lost goods and forgotten artifacts. While the play takes place in Setzuan, Settle’s conception is not meant to convey anything specifically Chinese. What we see could be any poverty region anywhere.
“It’s more like a fairy tale,” explains Volner. “We avoided making it specific to any area. It’s an extremely eclectic show. You’re going to recognize elements from a host of different types of theatre. We have a very broad cast with a variety of experiences bringing many things to the table.”
Anyone familiar with Brecht knows of his intent to alienate the audience, to break down the illusory “fourth wall” by throwing in direct audience addresses, singing and dancing. Settle has retained these elements, using a unique original score composed by Obadiah Eaves that draws on ancient Chinese, classic rock and Vaudeville, and includes a bizarre chair dance set to Journey’s “Midnight Train.” The effect is reflexive, and the audience is reminded that this is not reality, but merely a play. Of course, the effect of these “Brechtian asides” is more to induce laughter than anything. Indeed, The Good Person strikes a difficult balances, undercutting it’s heavy themes with comedic antics.
“It’s a dark play, but one of the most intriguing aspects is that while what some characters do is very funny, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Volner comments. “They’re funny in how they try to get by and how brutal they are to one another.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the play is the presence of Wong. While Shen Te and Shui Ta command the most presence, Wong’s place as Shen Te’s friend and spiritual mediator carries a strong weight in the course of the action.
As Volner explains, “Wong brings a certain perspective that others lack — he’s in touch with the religious aspect … but unable to act on it in any substantiative way. He protects Shen Te because he realizes that she has an ability to do good that he lacks.”
Settle, known for her work in the Off-Broadway production of Nine Parts of Desire, has brought one of the most unique productions that the Schwartz Center has hosted in recent years. On working with Settle, Volner remarks, “It’s much more challenging. She won’t settle for anything less than what she wants. That’s a challenging way of directing, but it’s extremely helpful. I’ve had to hone my acting more for this play than ever before.”
“Why should I go see The Good Person of Setzuan?” asks Chalmers. “I think the questions raised are so valid for us today to ask ourselves. It’s not even about morality necessarily, but about how can we get along? It sounds na