Exploring Brecht's Good Woman of Setzuan

Charlie Gorrill

It may be absurd and often funny, but Good Woman of Setzuan isn't easy.

Considering playwright Bertolt Brecht's reputation, that shouldn't come as a surprise. The innovative German playwright and raconteur delighted in pushing theatrical conventions to the limit.

Theatre Pro Rata embraces this in its intriguing production of Good Woman of Setzuan. Using multiple casting, crazed set and costume design, and a willingness to embrace the work's ambiguity, the production has laughs, uncomfortable silences, and a healthy dose of humanity's flaws — often within the same scene.

Brecht's parable focuses on the nature of "goodness" via one woman, Shen Te, whose kindness constantly pushes her to the edge of poverty. A prostitute, she earns the favor of a trio of bumbling, traveling gods when she shelters them for the night. They reward her with a bit of cash. She uses it to open a tiny tobacco shop, but her gentle nature isn't suited to business.

The pressure to make "good" business decisions — as opposed to "good" social decisions — causes Shen Te to craft an alter ego, her male cousin Shui Ta. His hardline stance on business makes the shop more successful, but leaves a trail of pain and destitution for those he steps on.

That's the central quandary here: When Shen Te acts according to the professed wishes of the gods, she is near ruin. When she (as Shui Ta) acts as an upstanding citizen in her community, she is successful but must abandon her good heart.

These tough breaks are tempered by humor, accented by Carin Bratlie's deft direction. The nine-actor cast plays a dizzying number of characters, often multiple ones in the same scene. Amber Bjork gets the prize here, as she plays eight members of the same family, each brought to life by a mask and a different voice.

Foster Johns puts in the strongest performance as Shen Te's two love interests: Yang Sun, the loser pilot Shen Te falls in love with even though he only wants to exploit her and take her money, and old barber Shu Fu, who is willing to trade cash for her affections. Both characters are bold, well defined, and not entirely likeable.

Kelsey Cramer plays our good woman Shen Te. She's an intriguing character you can't help rooting for — the only truly good person in the whole show — and Cramer brings out all of her vulnerability. Her Shui Ta, however, isn't quite as successful, as it lacks the bite such an exacting businessman should have in this show. As it is, the Shui Ta moments often slump without the dramatic push the scenes demand.

Even with that hitch, Good Woman of Setzuan creates a compelling world, thanks in large part to scene designer Sadie Ward and costume designer Mandi Johnson. Their work is minimalist, but emboldens the whole production, from the goofy costumes of the gods (one of whom appears to have a pot pie on his head) to tiny set pieces. Composer Topher Pirkl and sound designer Jacob M. Davis add plenty of off-kilter cues that further set the absurd scene, namely an oddball collection of instruments used for the live sound.

As this is Brecht, you won't find a happy ending here. For all its absurdity, Good Woman has a hard edge.

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