Site-specific productions don’t get much more serendipitous than this: For its staging of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Setzuan, Frank Theatre has taken over the space that formerly housed Rainbow Foods at Lake and 27th in Minneapolis. The service counter is now a refreshment stand, the sales floor houses a tent-city installation by Kellie Larson, and the loading dock has become a stage.
For this play set in a slum, director Wendy Knox, working with Larson and set designer Joe Stanley, has filled the space with a lot of details to savor. That’s a good thing, because the long play (Tony Kushner adapted a translation by Wendy Arons) makes for three solid hours of theater.
The eponymous “Good Person” is Shen Te (Emily Grodzik). She’s a former prostitute who finds herself able to open a small tobacco shop after three visiting deities (Katherine Ferrand, Janis Hardy, and Ellen Apel) reward her virtuous spirit with a small sack of seed money. (Knox downplays the relevance of the nominally Chinese setting.)
The trio of gods — whose garrulous demeanor, eclectic duds, and casual attitude toward their own powers recall the witches from Hocus Pocus — have come to Earth to try to find just one good person. Shen Te turns out to be their last best bet, and they follow her adventures as her goodness is challenged.
Among those testing Shen Te are a bevy of greedy neighbors, as well as a manipulative lover (John Middleton) and the slumlord (Virginia S. Burke) who owns the shop’s building. Shen Te disguises herself as an unsympathetic male cousin, who’s able to say no to people when the “good person” just can’t bring herself to.
Knox is a Brecht specialist who nails this material’s deliberately stagey tone; in a sense it’s a satire of a morality play. When Shen Te is generous, she’s beloved but exploited; when she minds her own interests, her “cousin” is hated but flourishes. In the end, the immortals (and, by extension, the audience) have to judge whether Shen Te is in fact a good person.
The strong, tightly rehearsed actors are all well-cast, making every scene fun to watch. Middleton effectively embodies Shen Te’s irresponsible love interest with slacker charisma and unapologetic self-centeredness. A radiant Grodzik gives a complex performance that keeps Shen Te from coming off as the contemptible rube so many other characters take her for.
The show sounds even better than it looks, with several songs set to catchy melodies by Dan Dukich. (Whoever designed that loading dock could teach a few lessons about acoustics to some of the architects creating actual theater spaces in this city.) This Good Person is easy to recommend whether you’re a Brecht newcomer or an aficionado. The unique setting and expert production will reward anyone willing to get lost in the supermarket for a few hours.
The Good Person of Setzuan
Frank Theatre at Rainbow Foods
2919 27th Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-724-3760; through November 20