“How can I be good when everything is so expensive?” asks the struggling prostitute Shan Te in Phoenix Theatre’s production of Good Person of Setzuan by Bertolt Brecht.
This parable-play, first performed in 1943, ultimately asks the question ‘how can a person be good in a world that is not?’ The answer, ultimately, is for the audience to decide.
The play opens with Wang (played with virtuosity by Kale Penny), a water seller, anticipating the arrival of the “enlightened ones” — three gods searching for “good” people in the world, who live according to their moral principles.
With the gods also in search of lodging for the night, Wang sets off to find an appropriate host, but is only able to find a room with a prostitute, Shen Te (performed with clarity by fourth-year acting student Veronique Piecry), who cannot turn them away because of her innate kindness.
After meeting Shen Te (and a very animated discussion), the gods are reassured that there is indeed good left in the world, and they leave her with a large sum of money — enough to both help her survive and test her altruism.
Shen Te buys a humble retail shop — which due to her social conscience hastily devolves into a shelter for the needy — and quickly develops the nickname “Angel of the Suburbs.”
The more she gives, the more people take, and Shen Te is forced to protect herself, and her investment, by creating an alter-ego, cut-throat male cousin Shui Ta (also played by Piercy, with the addition of a simple mask and an Adidas track suit).
At first, Shui Ta only comes around when things get out of hand, but has more of a permanent presence as things spiral out of control.
Sadly, not much has changed since Brecht finished the play in 1943 — wars still rage, genocide still happens and people are still doing what they can to survive. Director Conrad Alexandrowicz (artistic director of Wild Excursions Performance) brings modern touches to the production by removing it from 1940s’ Setzuan and bringing it into the 21st century, although at times some of the more modern language is jarring compared to the prose Brecht has written (“Put that in your pipe and smoke it”).
Alexandrowicz’s extensive experience with physical theatre shines through in this production, with the large ensemble cast — there was always something going on in the background, but it was never distracting from the story itself.
Original music by third-year student Francis Melling adds a blues-rock edge to the production, and also a sense of whimsy, especially at the end in a song-and-dance number that the gods can’t even resist.
The set, designed by fourth-year student Simon Farrow, is immense, successfully portraying the vastness of a metropolis, complete with a skyscraper skyline and corrugated metal slums with walls that retract to reveal Shen Te’s humble retail shop. The set doesn’t necessarily resemble China, though, but more of a modern international any-city, which makes a lot of sense considering the issues in the play are universal.
Costume designer Kat Jeffery’s use of armbands emblazoned with the names of mega-corporations really brought home the theme of humans being slaves to unchecked corporate greed. In the second act, even the gods belonged to multinationals like Google, Yahoo and YouTube.
At two and a half hours, Good Person of Setzuan is a serious undertaking, but a successful one, as Phoenix Theatre again managed to keep my undivided attention throughout. M
Good Person of Setzuan
UVic’s Phoenix Theatre
Nov. 15-17, 21 at 8pm
Until Nov. 24
Tickets at 250-721-8000