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WHEN IT CAME to raping and pillaging the works of others, no 20th-century playwright could hold a candle to Bertolt Brecht. The idiosyncratic pinko playwright ranged far and wide in his search for material to transform into his own dramas. He rivaled Shakespeare, the literary grave-robber supreme, in his audacious choice of sources. Twenties cinema, 18th century musicals, Renaissance history, Jack London stories; in Brecht's hands they all became the stuff of his proletarian "epic" theater.
The Good Woman of Setzuan
by Bertolt Brecht
Directed by Andrei Serban
At the American Repertory Theatre
In repertory through July 19
To judge from Brecht's track record, putting spin on a familiar story was one of the surer ways of accomplishing this. Even when Brecht was ripping off no one in particular, he felt the need to cloak his work with the patina of plagiarism. According to Brecht's doctrine of the epic play, setting works in an unfamiliar and unsympathetic context allows the audience to absorb the message of the works rather than getting absorbed in the character and stories. If Andrei Serban's seminew production of Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan shows anything, it's that a playwright's intentions can be taken far beyond the level of good taste and still work as great theater. Assuming of course, that your idea of great theater is irony applied with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
For example, the good woman of the title is Shen Te (Priscilla Smith), a ho' in pre-war Setzuan. A sort of Oriental Mary Magdalene, she is the only person in the province willing to house three Gods (Isabell Monk, Harry S. Murphy and Thom Molinaro) on a fact finding mission from heaven. The deities--who obviously left home without it--reward Shen Te with a small fortune and the admonition to continue being good.
While Shen Te found it hard enough to be good when she was a lady of the evening, her windfall--invested in a tobacco boutique--makes it even harder for her to behave virtuously, with all the beggars, parasites, and unscrupulous MBA types hanging around. To keep the capitalist hounds at bay, she employs a lesson from The Importance of Being Earnest, disguising herself as her hardhearted cousin Shui Ta and executing all of the unpleasant duties of a businessman in his name.
This Jekyll-Hyde tactic works well enough until Shen Te falls in love with a grounded pilot (James Andreassi), whose sole desire in life is to fly. She sees in him the romantic dreamer--he sees in her the ticket to a pilot's job in Peking. Passion, betrayal, a broken wedding, pregnancy & lawsuits; Brecht packed enough plot threads in here to power a whole season of Dallas.
And that's not the only similarity. Brecht subscribed to the J.R. Ewing school of human relations--he is never less than mocking, and usually down right cynical, about human character. Though Brecht, like Sartre, Orwell, and other European intellectuals of his generation, was never really a fellow traveler, he did subscribe to Marx's belief that evil and suffering were the products of a capitalist society.
Buy it or not, The Good Woman has all the nasty wit of his best known work, The Threepenny Opera. Unfortunely, Opera collaborator Kurt Weill was long gone when Brecht wrote this play, so director Serban commissioned hip New York composer Elizabath Swados to score Brecht's songs. Some of her past work like Runaways, has been pretty vile, but in Good Woman some of her curt, antimelodic songs are pretty fair substitutes for Weill. This is less laziness on Swados's part, I think, than the fact that Weill's music was the perfect accompaniment to Brecht's cynical, plebian lyrics.
Though Serban's past work at the ART has been characterized by astonishing visual elegance, The Good Woman can only be described as kitsch chinoiserie. There are lots of "Ah so"s and "Honorable sirs" and wavings of fans here, which in almost any other context would look offensively cliched but here fit in perfectly with Brecht's consciously artificial evocation of China. The odd thing about Serban's kitchen sink approach is that he seems to borrow almost as many Japanese conventions as Chinese, suggesting that Serban has been dealing his Orientalism from a rather shallow supply. But who cares, when the production works so well?
THE PERFORMANCES which partake of Serban's subcamp shenanigans generally work the best. Thomas Derrah's Wong, a cringing and bitter waterseller, is another doozy in this actor's slow rise to the top of the ART company. In the last few seasons he has threatened to supplant John Bottoms place as The Best Thing About the ART. Sandra Shipley brings back fond memories of the Anna Mae Wong School of Oriental Acting as the avaricious Mrs. Mi Tzu.
On the other hand, there are limits. Andreassi goes over the top and out the door playing the caddish pilot Yang Sun. When Brecht spoke of emotionally "distancing" the audience from the actors, he was thinking in terms of yards, not light-years. Though Shipley's male alter-ego Shui Ta is an outstanding piece of physical acting (her face is concealed by a mask), she never quite makes you believe that Shen Te was either a prostitute or someone who Did It All For Love. Joseph Costa is fine as an unemployed hobo, but in the important supporting role of the Policeman he couldn't make the Keystone Kops second string. What's worse--or I guess better--is that several of his speeches are completely drowned out by the over-enthusiastic band, its amps never budging from Spinal Tap's legendary "11". As usual for the ART, the sets and costumes are superb.
The ART's season, which will soon end with a Dario Fo farce, has been one long excursion into the Heart of Snideness. With the possible exception of Sweettable at the Richilieu, every play this season has been dripping with satire, burlesque and irony. And perhaps this is all that we can ask out of modern theater.
With the pastiche ideology of post-modernism the theater has lost the appetite for the strong emotions and extravagant gestures that once were associated with the word "dramatic." Somehow, a cheesy melodrama like Dietrich's Dishonoured or Bogart's Maltese Falcon seems truer to the human heart than any new work I've seen on a stage in years. The theater, always a comfortable haven for dry intellectuals, may well have hypertrophied to the point that it is just an expensive substitute for The David Letterman Show.
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