Monday, April 26, 2010

Theater Review: "The Good Soul of Szechuan"

"The Good Soul of Szechuan"

written by Bertolt Brecht
translated by David Harrower
directed by Shade Murray
Strawdog Theatre Company
through May 29th

No good deed goes unpunished.

When I first heard that adage, I thought it was funny, but I didn't really understand it. Then I gave a homeless person in my neighborhood five bucks. The next time I ran into them and I didn't have anything to give them, they were pissed. No good deed goes unpunished.

On a bigger scale, Obama attempted to provide healthcare for all because people are dying and/or going bankrupt. His reward has been death threats, slander and a compromised bill.

"The Good Soul of Szechuan" is a timely tale and a really good time.

First, the history lesson...

Bertolt Brecht was a German playwright and director. While motivated by the political and social unrest similar to the Dada movement, he wasn't out to destroy art but use it as a tool to convey and explore inequalities. His most famous works are "Three Penny Opera" and "Mother Courage." Stylistically, he championed theater as a collective experiment, often ensemble oriented and generated works. He was less interested in his words being presented respectfully and realistically and more interested in engaging and challenging the audience. It is quite common for his actors to announce their stage directions and character's intentions while performing in his quest to strip the story of representing reality.

Brecht's style is often mis-termed "alienation." It is anything but and that is clearly demonstrated in Strawdog's production. The "alienating" techniques of interrupting action with songs, announcing entrances and exits, addressing the audience, no set, harsh lights, actually gels audience and actors. One feels like we're all in this together.

The story begins with three gods in search of a good person. They are having a tough time. In Szechuan, they find Shen Te, a kind prostitute played robustly by Micheala Petro. Shen Te points out to the gods that it's difficult to be good while poor. They agree and reward her with money. She sets out to make a respectable life by using the money to buy a store to sell tobacco while also giving to the community. This overt action and her reputation for being good natured attracts a parade of mooching relatives, neighborhood beggars and insincere lovers. Faced with the likely collapse of her business and own future, she becomes her own cousin, Shui Ta, who kicks everyone out and doesn't take any shit. So, does this mean one has to be bad to be good?

This ensemble is in top form. Carmine Grisola as the gods' mortal guide in Szechuan is an anchor of good conscience while trying to eek out a living selling water. He plays it well and brings a strong empathetic sense of a good guy working hard just trying to make a living. It has to be tough to have any sense of optimism when selling water during the raining season. John Henry Roberts as the pilot without a plane deftly uses emotions as strings to pull to do whatever he can to become a true pilot again. He also has one of the best rock songs in the evening, "Pigs Will Fly."

Under Shade Murray's direction, the Strawdog ensemble invites you into their warehouse party and show you a good time while making you think and feel. For anyone who has ever done a good deed only to feel ripped off and burned, this may not be the tonic you need, but it does make you feel like you're in good company.


- I loved that the production was a scrappy mix of thrift store props and costumes and improv-style object work. When pantomiming drinking out of a glass, your thumb is NOT the lip of the glass. Everyone I saw drink from an improv glass pressed their lips to their thumb while sipping. Your thumb should be wherever it would be when you hold an actual glass, a good inch or so below the rim.

- I don't care if your playwright is dead, give 'em a bio in the program. Someone in your audience is likely to be new to the writer's work, so give them an opportunity to learn more and give the writer their due. This is the second production in a row I have seen where the playwright was dissed in this manner.