By Colin Douglas
Unapologetically theatrical, The Good Person of Szechwan begins when three gods come to earth in search of one person who’s truly good.
Wang, the Water Seller, who kind of serves as narrator, is the first to encounter the deities. He tries to help, but finds that nobody in Szechwan will offer them someplace to sleep except Shen Te, a poor prostitute. After spending the night in her ramshackle hovel, the gods reward Shen Te with enough money to open a small tobacco shop. Almost at once everybody begins hounding her for help and handouts.
Things become worse when she falls for a suicidal hunk named Sun, an unemployed pilot, who pretends to love her, but actually plans to rob her blind. To save herself from her own good heart, Shen Te invents a ruthless male alter ego, her “cousin,” Shui Ta, to deal with the business of survival. From then on, this moralistic tale escalates out of control, finally leaving it up to the audience to decide in the end.
Cor Theatre’s mission is to explore the inner truth of the human experience through storytelling. Once again, this time under Ernie Nolan’s expert direction, they’ve assembled a production that defies convention. “We engage our audiences by presenting stories that take courage to tell,” and mounting a full production of one of Bertolt Brecht’s classics certainly fills the bill.
Instead of trying to engage audiences to connect emotionally with his characters and stories, Brecht’s Epic Drama style of theatre seeks to encourage self-reflection, forcing the theatergoer to think and do, rather than merely feel. He hoped spectators would recognize the social injustices found in his plays and then go out and change their own world for the better. To accomplish this, the playwright constantly reminded audiences that they were watching a presentation, not some form of reality.
The fourth wall is broken and characters sometimes speak directly to the audience. Action periodically comes to a halt in order for a song to be performed that comments upon the theme of the play. Scenes and musical interludes are announced verbally, as well as through visual captions. Scenery and costumes are purposefully non-realistic and representational. The whole effect is totally presentational.
Nolan does a superb job, not only in honoring Brecht’s socially conscious drama in a way that would make the playwright proud, but he’s brought this timeless 1940’s drama into the 21st century.
With its hip hop and rap influences, the songs become the music and anguish of today’s youth. While Brecht’s parable is set in the fictional Chinese city of Szechwan, these characters are the street people we see daily in any big city. Even Nolan’s excellent gender-blind, multicultural casting reflects the population of a metropolis. And staged within Red Orchid Theatre’s modest confines, using the aisles to surround the audience with Brecht’s story, we’re reminded that this modest venue is basically just an alley between buildings, with a roof over it.
The 12-member cast, many of whom play multiple roles (as dictated by the playwright, himself), are all excellent and versatile. Familiar young Chicago actor Will Von Vogt is terrific in the challenging roles of both the prostitute Shen Te and her male cousin, Shui Ta. Von Vogt easily transitions between the two roles, sometimes engaging conversationally in the aisles with his audience. Someone, however, should provide this hard-working young actor with a handkerchief for him to blot his sweat-soaked face between frantic costume changes. Dawn Bless is comical, commanding and charismatic as Wang, the Water Seller. She serves as the audience’s surrogate, while hawking bottles of drinking water to anyone interested in a cool beverage.
Chris Brickhouse is animalistic, sexy and forceful as ambitious Sun, the selfish, unemployed pilot whom Shen Te loves. Aida Delaz, Jos N. Banks and Ben Chang, each of whom excels in several other roles, are properly ethereal and serenely majestic as the three Gods. Narciso Lobo creates two wonderfully humorous characters, as the Policeman and Sun’s mother, Mrs. Yang. Lea Pascal is hilarious as cougar entrepreneur and slumlord, Mrs. Mi Tzu, while handsome Niko Kourtis is sad and sincere as Shu Fu, while also playing an hilarious Wife in earlier scenes. Jeri Marshall, Isabella Karina Coelho and Michael Buono complete the cast as outspoken Mrs. Shin, the obnoxious, scantily-clad Niece and a boombox playing Nephew. All three are strong actors with beautifully trained voices that serve this production well.
This fine, updated production beautifully honors Brecht’s unique presentational style, while providing its own contemporary spin on this play. While several actors may want to dial down their volume, often too loud for this tiny venue, Ernie Nolan has done an excellent job of updating the playwright’s epic drama. Alarie Hammock’s costumes are colorful and appropriate, designed for some necessary quick changes. Claire Chrzan’s lighting design nicely emphasizes the narrow, brick-lined space and capturing the mood, and Stefin Steberl’s set design and props serve the production well. Although this production boasts a dozen talented actors, Brecht’s drama reminds us that, in a society where the economy determines its morality, a good man is hard to find.
Cor Theatre presents “The Good Person of Szechwan” through Sept. 11 at Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells, Chicago. More information and tickets are available online here.