Recipe for a Bertolt Brecht play: Take a standard melodrama, substitute a generalized and idealized "Good" for the hero and heroine, make Capitalism/Poverty the villain, add the fragmented sensibility of modern poetry, and then implicate everyone for merely being alive. If there are any doubts about Brecht's penchant for existential melodrama, you shouldn't have to look much further than his own burial instructions: to have a stiletto driven through his heart and then to be buried in a steel coffin so that the worms couldn't eat him. (He'd probably be alongside Walt Disney in cryogenic deep-freeze if he'd lived longer. . . with the stiletto in his heart, of course.) Such was Brecht's dilemma as a playwright -- a bleeding heart of the proletariat who knew all too well the filthy realities behind idealism, and wished to wash his hands of them. This contradiction is, unsurprisingly, the same dilemma of Shen-Te, the central character in Brecht's The Good Woman of Szechuan.
Set in a stylized Chinese any-slum (for fantastical effect more than anything), The Good Woman is a thorough examination, and cross-examination, of "Good" in a defiled world. When three Gods come down to earth in search of "one good person" so that they can report back to the heavens that life is, still, truly worth living, there are few candidates until Shen-Te, our hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, steps forward to offer the gods a night's lodging. The implicit puns on the word "good" begin immediately.
As a reward for her kindness, Shen-Te is given a thousand silver dollars with which she opens a small tobacco shop, hoping to make an honest living. But soon, the desperately practical masses descend upon her legitimate business to prey upon her innate goodness. Shen-Te is unable to see through even the most simpering sob stories, and her good fortune begins to dwindle quickly.
Like all of humanity, Shen-Te quickly realizes that she must also become ruthless if she wants to protect herself and her business. "I can't be good to others and myself," she laments. Unable to bear the burden of cruelty, and fearful of disappointing the gods, Shen-Te creates an alter ego to do her dirty work: a male cousin, Shui-Ta, a man of reason who's just as practical and self-serving as Shen-Te's lumpen manipulators.
Shui-Ta becomes the steel coffin to Shen-Te's stiletto in the heart. And it is Shui-Ta/Shen-Te's attempt to reconcile this inherent doppelgnger that drives the play deeper into the heart of the tangled causes and effects that wind between wealth and poverty, love and reality, the individual and society.
Though TheatreWorks' production of The Good Woman of Szechuan is beautifully staged, the one crucial missing element is an overall sense of melodrama. Brecht's vision requires an elevated two-dimensionality of character that repels the viewers' sympathies, and forces them into reasoned consideration of the complexities of social realities outside the theater. Though Laura Tesman's incarnation of Shen-Te/Shui-Ta is well acted, it doesn't flatly capture the pathos, or the humor, of the duality. From the outset we know that Shen-Te's "goodness" is an obvious farce -- she prostitutes herself to the gods just as she prostitutes herself to her Johns. It doesn't mean that she's bad, but that she's just like everyone else. It's Shen-Te's belief that she can uphold the appearance of being wholly "good" that Brecht shoves into the audience's face while dramatically undermining it with Shui-Ta. The conflict between the two begs to be more dramatically interpreted.
Chia-Yu Tang, playing a sprightly and opportunistic Water Seller/chorus, perfectly captures the character and caricature of the working poor; he's a hard-worker who unabashedly swindles on the side, and is thus able to see things as they are. John Horn's enthusiastic portrayal of Yang Sun, Shen-Te's ne'er-do-well pilot boyfriend, adds much-needed entropy and surprise to the stage. Bob Pinney, Jane Fromme and Melvin Grier do a fine job as the thoroughly two-dimensional bourgeois gods in tuxedos and power suits, though they fail to punctuate many of the innuendoes and puns that could be more deliberately milked for comedic effect. And hats off to set designer Christian Medovich and anyone else involved in the construction of the gorgeous, perfectly stylized set.
What is missing, ultimately, from TheatreWorks' production is not delivery, but interpretation. Add to this the fact that Brecht's Marxist ideals have been worm food for well over a decade, and there isn't much to hang a play on but the basic story of human contradiction. And such a task isn't easy with a playwright like Brecht who wanted both to hold his audience's attention, and make them feel uncomfortable at the same time.