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When Good Goes Bad

The Good Soul of Szechuan, Brecht's classic about a classic human dilemma




Bertolt Brecht's 1943 play The Good Soul of Szechuan may be one of the classic works of 20th-century drama, but there's nothing stuffily "classic" about Strawdog Theatre's electrifying new staging. Ebullient, spontaneous, sometimes raucous, and thoroughly contemporary, this production has a loose, improvisational feel that belies its fidelity to the text.

Performed in a 2008 translation by Scottish playwright David Harrower, whose gripping Blackbird played last year at Victory Gardens, this parable about good and evil embodies the Brechtian vision of a theater that simultaneously entertains and teaches. Strawdog's raw industrial space, with its low ceilings and sliding iron doors, is a perfect setting for Shade Murray's production, which feels at times more like a loft party than a theater piece. It's a true ensemble effort: the 18 cast members work together seamlessly, with a marvelous blend of informality and precision. At the same time, it's a showcase for a pitch-perfect performance in the title role by Michaela Petro.

Petro plays Shen Te, a prostitute in Szechuan. The quintessential whore with a heart of gold, Shen Te finds her life turned upside down when she offers lodging in her cramped rented room to three strangers (played by Adam Shalzi, Amy Dunlap, and Anita Chandwaney). Turns out the visitors are gods, searching for at least one good person in a corrupt world; their guide, the water-carrier Wang (Carmine Grisolia), brings them to Shen Te only after they've been refused shelter by everyone else in the village.

The divinities reward Shen Te's generosity with money, enough to allow her to quit turning tricks and buy a small tobacco shop. She wants the shop to be a refuge for the poor and homeless—people whose misery she understands from personal experience—but her charity is soon abused by all sorts of scroungers whose genuine neediness does not make them any less selfish or corrupt.

Because her kindly nature inhibits her from confronting the situation directly, Shen Te invents a male alter ego—a badass cousin named Shui Ta, who runs the grifters out, builds the shop into a prosperous tobacco factory, and starts dealing heroin to provide Shen Te with the money she needs to pursue her charitable goals.

Gradually Shen Te finds herself relying more and more on heartless Shui Ta—which is to say, on the tough, ruthless aspects of her own personality. Shen Te and Shui Ta represent a basic dichotomy in the human condition: in order to do good, we must sometimes be bad. Brecht explores whether goodness and evil are moral qualities or merely modes of behavior—and, indeed, whether true virtue can even exist in conditions of poverty and cruelty.

When Shen Te falls in love with Yang Sun (John Henry Roberts), an unemployed mail pilot who gets her pregnant, the action spirals into a farce of mistaken identities, as Shui Ta is put on trial for the murder of Shen Te. The judges are the same three ineffectual, platitude-spouting gods who got the poor woman into this mess in the first place.

Petro is equally compelling as Shen Te and Shui Ta, which makes for an explosive climax when her two personae finally collide. But "compelling" here doesn't mean "convincing." Brecht never wants the audience to believe in the characters, but rather to observe their actions with a detached, critical eye. Shen Te's crises are conveyed with total commitment by Petro, who fluidly negotiates the script's abrupt jumps between comic and serious tone. Yet the audience is also always made aware that Petro is an actor playing the role of a person who is playing another role. This gives viewers the desired distance even as it heightens their involvement, their sense of live performance as an experience shared between the audience and the actors (who also function as musicians, playing and singing Mike Pryzgoda and Mikhail Fiksel's rock settings of Brecht's poetry, and as techies, changing the scenery, providing sound effects, and running the lights). The totality of this interaction sharpens our thinking—all the better to consider Brecht's ironic, inconclusive script, which, like the world, offers far more questions than answers.   

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