Theater Review: The Good Person of Setzuan

By Bertolt Brecht; Translated by Shimon Zandbank; Directed by Yevgeny Arye; Gesher Theater, December 28.

(photo credit: DANIEL KAMINISKI)
We get it. Decency gets clobbered every time. The world is about money and might, money and power, money and money and money. Does that sound familiar? Arye and his inspired team, Michael Karamenko (his set includes a reproduction of part of the fabulous 12th century Qingming scroll), Stepania Georgekaite (costumes) and Igor Kapustin (lights) have set this Good Person on sand, always a metaphor for treachery, that becomes increasingly waterlogged because of almost endless rain, that requires the setting of duckboards (like the trenches of ghastly World War I) so that people can keep their feet dry as they’re led to perdition. Avi Benjamin’s amazing music and Michael Weissboard’s powerful sound complement the visuals.
Like I said, we get it, love it, and don’t want it to end, it’s that good – even though the ending breaks our heart.
Brecht’s parable begins with three weary gods who’ve come to look for a really good soul. They meet Wang (Alon Friedman) the water seller and ask him to find them a bed for the night. The only one willing to accommodate them is Shen Te (Neta Shpigelman) the prostitute. When they leave the next morning they gift her with $1000. With the money she buys a small tobacco store, and her troubles start.
To get rid of the intrusive parasites, spongers and hangers-on she has to invent and become a ruthless male cousin, Shui Ta. He drives them away. Then Shen Te meets an unemployed airman (Yehezkel Lazarov) with whom she falls in love. He’s a rotter. He pretends to be in love but all he really wants, as he eventually tells Shui Ta, is her money to pay a bribe so he can become a mail pilot. Shen Te is devastated.
Then she discovers she’s pregnant.
Things go from bad to worse to desperate, and even the (complacent) gods desert her.
They’ve found their good person. Ciao! Brecht (1898 – 1956) was also a poet and a theater director whose plays were designed to promote his theories on theater. In brief, he rebelled against naturalism. Plays were plays, and the audience had continually to be jolted to remember that via mime, placards, narration, special effects, whatever worked.
Arye outBrechts Brecht in this scathing, funny, poetic Good Person, like the colored lights on the gods’ umbrellas, like the stylized representations of sun, moon and houses, like pretend eating in unison, like Shen Te’s touching, hopeful puppetry with a doll’s head, a sheet and a parasol.
The entire cast, very un-Brechtianly, acts its heart out. Neta Shpigelman’s heartless Shui Ta only heightens her vulnerable, spiritual Shen Te whose uncalculating goodness she radiates.
As Yang Sun Yehezkel Lazarov, in the obligatory white suit, has a blazing, bravura Elvis song and dance number, but he brings a sleazy opportunism to his pilot that works brilliantly.
Skinny Alon Friedman is a scurrying and appropriately ratty Wang. Yuval Yanai is a pompously wordy god (Catholic) abetted by Mendi Cahan (Jewish) and Vitali Fuchs (Hindu). Alexander Senderovitz, Svetlana Demidov, Natalia Manor and Mira Kantor as their characters are all larger than life and marvelously unlovable.
Two and a half hours zip by like minutes, and Brecht is cheering loudly.