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The Good Person of Szechwan Review - An Unimpressive Interpretation

By Jessie Bond

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Cor Theatre ensemble member Will Von Vogt (center) plays the title role of the good hearted prostitute, Shen Te, in Cor Theatre's The Good Person of Szechwan

 

Cor Theatre closes its second season with The Good Person of Szechwan, perhaps the most popular work by German playwright and director Bertolt Brecht. Set against a backdrop of poverty and social injustice, the play tells the tragic tale of Shen Te, a kind prostitute who represents, in the eyes of the nearly powerless gods who visit Szechwan, the only good person remaining in the world. In the face of economic struggle and the harsh treatment of others, Shen Te struggles to remain good. While director Ernie Nolan’s concept of bringing this story into a contemporary urban setting is intriguing in theory, the execution is only so-so, and the production falls short of its full potential.

 

(from left) Isabella Karina Coelho, Michael Buono and Dawn Bless in Cor Theatre's The Good Person Szechwan

 

I was initially skeptical of the choice to cast a white man as Shen Te, a role ostensibly written for an Asian woman, a demographic that is poorly represented onstage and in media in general. Why take away the rare Asian female lead in exchange for yet another white male protagonist? But I was willing to play along, intrigued by this world in which gender, race, age, and appearance have no bearing on which actors play which parts. This system, in addition to “reflecting the diversity of Chicago,” as Cor Theatre advertises, allows for the kind of alienation Brecht requires, forcing the audience’s awareness of the separation of actor and character.

 

Cor Theatre ensemble member Will Von Vogt plays the title role of the good-hearted prostitute, Shen Te, in Cor Theatre's The Good Person of Szechwan

 

Ultimately, however, I concluded that a male Shen Te simply does not work. Gender plays an important role in this story; Shen Te’s need to transform into her fictional male cousin Shui Ta in order to assert power and influence is a not insignificant statement about gender roles. With a male actor as the lead, Shui Ta becomes the more natural character and Shen Te the character in drag, implying, whether intentionally or not, that the kindness of Shen Te is the performative and false self, while Shui Ta represents the character’s true nature. This undermines Shen Te’s fundamental character arc, that of a moral person forced to become hard and uncaring by circumstance.

 

Chris Brickhouse is Sun/Husband and Will Von Vogt plays the good hearted prostitute, Shen Te, in Cor Theatre's The Good Person of Szechwan

 

Casting is not the only place where this Good Person of Szechwan undermines itself; the finale is a rap that asks its audience what it would do if it saw a Shen Te, ragged and hungry, begging on the streets and seems to demand the audience’s generosity to the homeless. An admirable thought, perhaps, had it not come at the end of a two-hour story about a kind person who is utterly destroyed by that very action—putting others first. Brecht does not righteously ask us if we will help people like Shen Te; he demands that we make the choice between our system of morality and our economic system, two systems that he straightforwardly presents as totally incompatible in this text. Cor Theatre, it seems, has missed the point.

                                                                                                                                                      

Cor Theatre ensemble member Will Von Vogt (center) plays the title role of the good hearted prostitute, Shen Te, in Cor Theatre's The Good Person of Szechwan

 

All of the music in the story is interpreted as rap, which follows logically from the play’s contemporary urban setting; however, the execution of it is somewhat lacking. For one thing, the beats blasting over the theatre’s speakers drown out the actors’ voices more often than not, making the lyrics unintelligible. For another, the majority of the performers are inexperienced rappers and it shows. Particularly offensive to me was the inverting of Nicki Minaj’s famous “Monster” lyrics as Shen Te transforms into her male alter ego: “you’ve seen the queen, now watch the king conquer.” To take such an iconic statement of female power, particularly black female power, and reassign it to a white man seems naïve at best, disingenuous at worst.

 

 

Cor Theatre ensemble member Will Von Vogt plays the title role of the good hearted prostitute, Shen Te, in Cor Theatre's The Good Person of Szechwan

 

The acting in the production is fairly good overall. For all that his gender identity is mismatched to the themes of his character, Will Von Vogt handles the transformation of mannerisms between Shen Te and Shui Ta aptly. Other standouts include Narciso Lobo, whose portrayal of multiple characters, particularly the elderly Mrs. Yang, brings some much-needed high energy to the show, and Dawn Bless, who brings both earnestness and ferocity to Wang the Waterseller. Design-wise, the production appears to be falling apart at the seams, exactly the sort of effect a Brecht production set in the slums needs. With dingy lights and shabby set pieces, the design transforms A Red Orchid Theatre’s intimate (borderline cramped) space into a den of poverty and misfortune.

 

Cor Theatre ensemble member Will Von Vogt (center), flanked here by Jeri Marshall and Michael Buono, plays the title role of the good hearted prostitute, Shen Te, in Cor Theatre's The Good Person of Szechwan

 

While Cor Theatre’s production of The Good Person of Szechwan gets some things right, it misses the mark in its attempt to bring this significant piece of the modern theatrical canon into 2016. Overall, I found it disappointing.

 

(from left) Jos N. Banks, Aida Delaz and Ben Chang in Cor Theatre's The Good Person of Szechwan. Ernie Nolan directs Tony Kushner’s translation of Bertolt Brecht’s popular parable of good and evil. Performances run through September 11, 2016 at Chicago's A Red Orchid Theatre. Tickets and information: CorTheatre.org or (866) 811-4111. All photos by Matthew Gregory Hollis

 

Ticket Information

Performances run through September 11: Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25; $10 students and industry. Tickets go on sale July 1. For tickets and information, visit the Cor Theatre website or call (866) 811-4111.

 

Note: For adult audiences only. Contains sexual content and partial nudity.

Published on Aug 15, 2016

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