The little lifeboat is swiftly sent down./ Too many men too greedily/ Hold on to it as they drown. — Bertolt Brecht
When Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956, Three Penny Opera) wrote the light and lively fable of The Good Person of Szechwan at the start of World War II, his world was in a wretched state. No wonder that he (with Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau) wrote a play about how hard it is to be a good person, when most people, whether because of character deficiencies or circumstances, are at best indifferent, and at worst, pure evil.
And what does it mean to be good? How can good people manage in this world? These weighty questions are entertainingly and breezily explored in Cal Shakes’ diverting and charming production. It’s easy for Brecht productions to be didactic or fail to realize the characters fully. Cal Shakes’ production suffers from none of that. The adaptation by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and direction by artistic director Eric Ting are outstanding.
As the three-hour play opens, Wang, the Water-Seller (terrific Lance Gardner), tells the audience that three of the highest gods, disguised as beggars, are coming to the backwater province of Szechwan, hoping to find a good person who will give them shelter for the night. After being rebuffed by many of the town’s rich and richly suspicious folk, they are offered hospitality by a young woman, Shen Te (superb Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), an indigent sex worker with a heart of gold.
As a reward, the gods give Shen Te 1,000 pieces of silver, with which she leases a tobacco shop and starts a new life. Although she is hoping to use her new-found wealth and station to continue to do good, she soon finds that a swarm of free-loading hangers-on will crush her unless she cuts them off. So she assumes the disguise of her fictitious male cousin, the stern capitalist, Shui Ta, who sends them packing and becomes her official enforcer whenever Shen Te’s vulnerability demands it. Even love presents problems for Shen Te, since her lover, the pilot, Yang Sun (nice work by Armando McClain) is after her money.
The Good Person of Szechwan is presented as a parable, with wonderfully imaginative costumes (Ulises Alcala), sets (Michael Locher) and make-up. The supporting cast, including Anthony Fusco, Lily Tung Crystal, Monica Lin, Victor Talmadge, Dean Linnard, Phil Wong, J Jha, Margo Hall, and Sharon Shao are excellent and remarkably versatile in the many roles that they each play.
Despite the parable’s humor and fantasy, rather than finish with a neat and superficial resolution, the author, through Wang, the Water-Seller, asks the audience how good people can maintain their virtue and goodness in our world. It’s as relevant and vital a question as when Brecht first presented it.
The Good Person of Szechwan is playing at the outdoor California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda through July 21. Cal Shakes advises the audience to dress warmly in layers as the temperature may dip down during evening performances. Blankets and hand-warmers are available for a donation. The complimentary shuttle from Orinda BART begins two hours before curtain. Tickets: $35-$102. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Cal Shakes online or telephone 510-548-9666.