(This appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 8/8/06)
Like Diogenes, the gods are searching for a good man...or, more accurately, a good person. Unlike Diogenes, they actually find one.
The search for a good person is the theme in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Person of Szechwan,” directed by Jacob Stoebel, with incidental music composed by Christopher Cook, presented by Acme Theater Company and currently running at the Veterans Memorial Theater.
This 1943 Brecht classic examines the effect of wealth on a good person in an imperfect society and creates a story which is able to illustrate Brecht’s Marxist leanings, while leaving the audience to decide for itself what the real message of the story may be.
Dara Yazdani is humble and earnest as Wang, the water seller, who explains to the audience that he has heard that several important gods are due to arrive and he is awaiting them at the city gate.
The three gods are represented by marvelously innovative 3-person puppets, designed by Nora Allen, and manipulated by Cami Beaumont, Heidi Voelker, Hannah May, Tatiana Ray, Atlanta Parrott, Geoffrey Albrecht, Celsiana Warwick, Vivian Breckenridge and Diana Castillo. They have been traveling, town to town, trying to find people who are still living good lives, but thus far have found only dishonesty, greed and selfishness.
Wang assures them that there are good people in Szechwan and goes off in search of someone who will open their door to the gods, so that they may spend the night. Wang is turned away everywhere except by the young prostitute Shen Te (Elsbeth Poe), who says that she has a small home and has a customer expected, but she cannot turn away anyone in need, so she will find a way to accommodate the gods. Poe nicely illustrates her character’s idealism and goodness.
As they leave, the gods reward Shen Te by giving her a bag of coins, a small fortune for the young woman. In truth it is as much of a test as it is a reward. Will her goodness persevere in the face of newfound wealth?
Initially, Shen Te uses her newfound wealth to do good, but she quickly begins to succumb to the power of money. With the help of the realtor, Mrs. Shin (Madelyn Ligtenberg), she purchases a tobacco shop, but her generosity quickly turns her small shop into a messy, overcrowded poorhouse which attracts crime and police supervision.
To keep from being thought of as a bad person. Shen Te adopts the disguise of her imaginary cousin, Shui Ta, who acts as her overseer while Shen Te is “away.” Shui Ta is able to make all those seemingly heartless business decisions that Shen Te is incapable of doing.
In the end, Shui Ta is suspected of murdering Shen Te and is brought for trial before the gods. Wang pleads to the gods to help in the search for Shen Te.
Again, in dialog which is as relevant to today as it was in the 1940s, the gods express disappointment at Shen Te’s disappearance, as she was the only good person they had encountered in their travels. “All over the world all we have found is poverty, debasement and dilapidation. Even the landscape crumbles away before our eyes...over the mountains we see great clouds of smoke and hear the thunder of guns.”
But they feel that “all will be redeemed if we can just find one who will stand up to this world.”
When Shen Te is discovered to be alive, the gods feel their work is done and they can return to their home because they have found that one good person, though Shen Te is filled with guilt for her duplicity.
It is, we learn, for the audience to discover how a good person can possibly come to a good end in a world that, in essence, is not good, or as narrator Anthony Pinto explains, “we had in mind some golden myth, then found the ending had been tampered with.” The plan, he says, is to leave the ending of the play open for the audience to decide for itself the meaning, as “frustrated audiences mean unemployment.”
“Our play will fail if you can’t recommend it,” he concludes.
Far be it from me to let the play fail. It gets a recommendation from this corner.