Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Good Person of Szechwan"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Carl A. Rossi


by Bertolt Brecht
translated by John Willett
directed by David Gram

Wang … Michael Allen
First God … Brittany Boothby
Second God … JoAnna DiTullio
Third God … Melanie Mah
Shen Teh / Shui Tah … Rochelle Therrien
Gentleman Caller / Agent … Mathias Goldstein
Mrs. Shin … Hannah Burkhauser
Woman … Lily Narbonne
Man … Harry Hobbs
Nephew … Chris Junno
Carpenter … Hardy Winburn
Limping Man / Child … Alexei Acosta
Sister-in-Law / Old One … Michelle Weinstein
Grandfather / Mr. Shu Fu … Tim Glynn
Niece … Mary Budzn
Policewoman … Carolyn Gilliam
Sun … Alex Mandell
Mrs. Mi Tzu … Olivia Hayes

Boston University’s student production of Brecht’s THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN (a/k/a “THE GOOD WOMAN OF…”), where said Good Person learns that she must do evil in order to remain good, is my first encounter with this Parable for the Theatre which Brecht wrote while in exile and suffused with Marxist principles and N­oh Theatre aesthetics. Going solely on the B.U. evening, I find not only the play but Brecht, himself, dated --- his Alienation Effect, intended to make his audiences think (not feel) and become better citizens, has been dissolved into so many curtain-less, presentational (and economical!) American plays and productions of the past three decades that the Master holds no surprises, now. Secondly, while Brecht’s collaborations with Kurt Weill remain sweet and sour, THE GOOD PERSON is condescending and obvious: Brecht wanted to rile the downtrodden, to lead them into a new society; to Brecht’s chagrin, the intellectuals whom he despised became his biggest followers: they understood and could appreciate what he was doing --- and remained where they were. (Mr. Weill ended his successful collaboration with Brecht by saying, “I don’t want to compose Karl Marx; I want to write MUSIC”, and he moved on --- to Capitalist America.)

With puppet-flat characters, THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN could still be effective-enough theatre if the emphasis was laid on stylized spectacle: the director and/or costume designer can still seduce with visuals, alone; instead, David Gram’s ensemble are in street clothes with modern-day touches (the Illustrious Ones, for example, become three campy businesswomen) --- oddly, the remaining Asian touch is that Mr. Gram’s actors bow, throughout, to each other. Most of these students declaim emptily and are dead from the neck, down, but can squeak by, here, since Brecht favored a rough, direct approach to his plays --- Theatre for the People, again --- and it’s touching to see their attempts at being daring (weren't we all daring, at their age?). But they’ll move on to other student productions --- they’re sampling Brecht, this month --- whereas the main reason why the legendary Berliner Ensemble was so legendary was not only because Brecht and Helene Weigel were successively in charge, but because the Ensemble did nothing BUT Brecht (a thought that would send me, as an actor, up the wall, though there are singers who’d be content singing nothing but Sondheim…). As the Good Person, Rochelle Therrien is conventionally modest, but when she adopts her alter ego (the only stylized part of the evening), she becomes truly fascinating as a character and as an actress: a mouse, learning how to bark and enjoy it --- Ms. Therrien could become a valuable performer, in time: a Thinking Man’s Ingenue. Alex Mandell’s Sun is explosive television drama --- not too shabby a start --- and the stage presences of Hannah Burkhauser, Tim Glynn and Brittany Boothby (I assume she is the tallest God) make me want to see them in something written by a doomed Capitalist who merely wants to entertain.

Back when I was a college freshman --- OMG: Nixon was President, then! --- my theatre department did a student production of Brecht’s first play, BAAL, in its lovely environmental space (layers of platforms with the audience sitting above, below and behind the actors) --- the student cast of four men and three women must have gone through group-grope sessions (and more?) to break down any and all inhibitions in order to perform and interact, half-naked --- if this wasn’t Theatre as Revolution, it was certainly Theatre as Foreplay (and just as revolutionary). To a small-town freshman of the early ‘70s, this was a mind-blowing experience in an era when many doors were opening up, all at once (OMG: male and female students living together --- without being married!), and this BAAL had a strong outlaw odor about it --- the odor of the Forbidden --- it made for a dangerous and exciting evening; this was my First Time, theatre-wise. BAAL did not turn me into a full-blown sensualist nor did I rush out to protest the Vietnam War, but it did introduce Dionysus to my own writing which had been heavily Apollonian up till then. There is nothing Forbidden about B.U.’s GOOD PERSON: Mr. Gram is cautious and the students are obedient. So, why do Brecht in the first place? Has Political Correctness finally tamed him? More than good intentions and youthful sincerity are needed to make Brecht potent and threatening, once again.

Looking through my theatre library, just now, I find my college-theatre books: oh, my --- Grotowski and his Poor Theatre… Beck and Malina’s The Living Theatre … Chaikin’s The Open Theatre … Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre … Happenings … Schechner’s DIONYSUS IN 69 … The Manhattan Project’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND … I never experienced any of them, directly, but their impacts were felt, nonetheless, in my cow-college theatre department. I would probably find that entire scene tiresome and unwashed, today, but when I have sat through too many tepid, bare-boned evenings, I ask myself “wha’ happened?”

"The Good Person of Szechwan" (9-24 October)
Boston University Theatre, Lane-Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 933-8600

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide