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Good Person of Szechwan

nytheatre.com review by David Hilder
February 5, 2013

Good Person of Szechwan

Taylor Mac (in red dress) and company in a scene from Good Person of Szechwan | Pavel Antonov

Considering the Very Downtown cred on display at La Mama in The Foundry Theatre’s production of Good Person of Szechwan – its star is the estimable Taylor Mac, the cast features no less a light than Lisa Kron, the play is directed by a current Resident Artist at the Public, the band The Lisps provides musical accompaniment to the proceedings – the play itself is presented directly and without fuss.  And that is the greatest of compliments.

Brecht’s play, for those unfamiliar, tells the story of Shen Tei, a Szechwan prostitute who is the only one in town to offer three gods shelter for the night.  Shen Tei is without question a hooker with a heart of gold, for she only wishes to do good in the world.  But she is surrounded by grasping, venal people eager to take advantage of her kind nature.  When she invests the thousand dollars the gods have given her as a reward for her generosity in a small tobacco business, she is beset by the landlord, her former landlord and his family, even the carpenter who built the shelves in the shop she now runs.  And so Shen Tei dresses as a man and calls herself Shui Ta, Shen Tei’s cousin.  Shui Ta is tough, kicking out unwanted guests and, eventually, turning the business into a sweatshop.  And yet people speak highly of Shui Ta as a strong business man, a leader in the community; for the gentle Shen Tei, people have only contempt.  It’s a bracing look at the role of goodness in the actual world, always apt and rendered here with skill and power.

Taylor Mac, as Shen Tei and Shui Ta, is a natural.  Having a man play the dual role effectively highlights one of the play’s central concerns, the distinct and very different ways men and women are treated, what is considered permissible behavior across gender.  The very wise decision to costume Shen Tei in a dress but without a false chest or wig, and showing Mac’s natural hairy chest, simultaneously calls attention to the artifice and renders it invisible – in a full suit, bowler hat, and false moustache, it is Shui Ta who looks more like the drag act.  (The choice also recalls drag performances by Charles Ludlum, whose Camille was famously hairy-chested, and Charles Busch, who has certainly glammed it up but also abjures fake breasts.)  But Mac’s heart is what ultimately makes the role work.  He is a deft actor, very satisfying in a tough pair of parts.

The cast across the board is every bit his equal.  It should go without saying that Lisa Kron is hilarious as both a landlord and the mother of a man looking to marry for money.  Clifton Duncan is unrecognizably distinct as an elderly grandfather and a strapping young pilot.  The gods are played by no lesser lights than Vinie Burrows, Annie Golden and Mia Katigbak.  And David Turner, as Wang, the water seller who introduces us to the play, is expert at every turn, navigating humor and pathos with ease.  Everyone is aptly cast and judiciously directed by Lear deBessonet, who demonstrates a clear-eyed understanding of what Brecht is after.

The design work is similarly on point.  Matt Saunders’s set serves the play unobtrusively but with humor, a series of small houses on a rising series of levels.  The costumes by Clint Ramos have a 1970s kind of vibe, contemporary but not luxe, and that’s just right.  Tyler Micoleau provides, as usual, sharp and diverse lighting.

Good Person of Szechwan is a fascinating play rendered fascinatingly, and it’s hard to ask for more than that.