There’s a lot not to like in Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan. There’s all that rabble, for one, preying incessantly upon the poor Shen Te. There’s also her machiavellian cousin Shui Ta with his cruel tactics. And then there are those complacent gods who won’t help even the purest soul out of the muck. That’s not even mentioning the maddening conundrum on which the action rests: is it possible to be good in a world where only the most selfish succeed? Brecht didn’t want his audiences to walk out of his plays with any firm assumptions or easy answers but anyone taking a first or second look at the Foundry Theatre’s revival of the play (which comes to the Public Theater after premiering at La MaMa in February) will love everything they see and hear.
The production is inhabited – the word is not too strong – by the marvelous, gender-crossing Taylor Mac who throws his art, heart and soul into the double role of the pitiful Shen Te and the merciless Shui Ta. Bald, in white face and gold stiletto sandals, he makes an imposing impression portraying both sides of human nature: as enjoyable to watch sending the poor packing as he is genuine and endearing as the good-hearted prostitute. No sooner has he high-stepped through his “Make A Change” dance number, a cool cabaret show-stopper, but he follows up with another, “The Man I Love,” that joyfully borders on the burlesque. But he is especially poignant in the play’s final scene, pregnant, dressed only in a white neglige, bared to the world and awaiting its judgement. With his shaved skull and desperate, near nakedness, he brought to mind images of gas chambers, and sent a shiver down my spine.
The production’s hands-down star, Taylor Mac doesn’t quite steal the show, however, backed up as he is at all times by the formidable talents of the rest of the cast, as well as a hyper-creative design team. The excellent ensemble puts in full-bodied comic performances, led by David Turner, as the slyly earnest water-seller, Wang, and by Lisa Kron, who also does double duty, as the thin-lipped Mrs. Mi Tzu and her opposite, Mrs. Yang, played here as an overbearing UES Jewish mother, in faux leopard prints with a three-inch long manicure. Special mention also has to be made of the Three Gods, played by an august trio of seasoned actresses: Mia Katigbak, Vinie Burrows and Mary Schultz. From their silver hair to their ivory-shoed toes, they could be porcelain figurines on your grandmother’s mantle but they are decidedly more lively, and a delight to watch. Matt Saunders’ set is a fanciful DIY construction of miniature houses and pink clouds cut from cardboard boxes, while Clint Ramos’ colorfully exaggerated costumes might have been plucked from an Otto Dix painting; both are subtle instruments of Brecht’s distancing effect.
This is a smart, funny, exuberant production, expertly directed by Lear deBessonet. But it is also a moving, thoughtful and engaged treatment of Brecht’s text and the problem he sets us. There is nothing not to like in the Foundry’s Good Person of Szechwan; only lots to enjoy, and to ponder.