Gentle readers, my esteemed colleague Stephen Brockmann, of the Department of Modern Languages at Carnegie Mellon University, has generously offered to write a review of The Good Person of Setzuan (which the Tatler cannot review because she has a conflict of interest in the production (see below)). Here is his review, which will also appear in the January issue of the Communications from the International Brecht Society (and with thanks to the editor of that journal for granting permission for publication on this site):
The German director Peter Kleinert—who teaches at the Ernst Busch Academy for Performing Arts in Berlin, one of Germany’s premier drama schools—traveled to Pittsburgh in the late summer and fall of 2011 to direct Bertolt Brecht’s Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, staged using the 1994 adaptation by Tony Kushner based on a translation by Wendy Arons (now a professor of dramaturgy at Carnegie Mellon University). This is a version of the play first produced at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1994 and since then performed in many venues throughout the United States. The Good Person of Setzuan (as Kushner calls the play) at Carnegie Mellon was performed with music written, conducted, and played by Thomas J. Beyer (also from Germany), who also played the piano in the four-person band. The band also included a guitar, percussion, and keyboard. I saw The Good Person of Setzuan twice, once on Friday, October 7 and then a second time on Tuesday, October 11—the latter production followed by a “talk-back” in which audience members, including myself, got the chance to ask questions and make comments to the cast members.
This was a pleasant production with good music, good acting, and good staging—an entirely enjoyable evening of theater. From the moment the audience entered the Philip Chosky Theater in Carnegie Mellon’s Purnell Center for the Arts, it was clear that one should not expect a normal performance. Members of the cast were already on stage performing warm-up exercises as the audience entered (slightly different warm-up exercises each time I saw the show), and audience members were free to either pay attention to what the actors were doing or not to pay attention (to read the program or talk to a friend, for instance).
The action of the play does not get going until one cast member comes to the front of the stage, welcomes the audience to the theater, asks them to notice where the exits are, tells them that the making of photographs and recordings from the show is forbidden, and then asks the actor Corey Cott (the stand-out performer of the water-seller Wang) whether he is ready to begin. Cott announces that he is indeed ready and then proceeds to interact with the audience, telling them that he will be playing Wang but moving seamlessly between his Corey Cott persona and his Wang persona. As Wang, he implores the audience to offer the three high-level gods who are coming to Setzuan some hospitality. On the first evening that I saw the performance no one volunteered; the second evening an audience member sitting in front of me offered the gods a cot, an offer which Wang proceeded to treat with disdain (a mere cot for the gods?!). It was clear from this that the actors were relatively ready for and comfortable with improvisation, and the two times that I saw the performance there were slightly different variants on some of this improvisational material. Again and again, when first appearing in a role, actors would introduce both themselves and the characters they were playing. This interrupted the action, of course, but it also preserved a sense of performativity and playfulness.
The role of Shen Te/Shui Ta was played by Ava DeLuca-Verley, also in a stand-out performance. Shen Te first appears dressed in the professional outfit of a prostitute, and when Wang asks where she has disappeared to, the audience can vaguely make out the fact that she is servicing a customer sexually behind a slightly transparent curtain. Ava DeLuca-Verley is particularly effective as Shui Ta, and even though the audience is often able to see the transformation from woman to man (since all of the costume changes occur on stage), her sudden appearance in a tight business suit and with a much deeper voice comes as a surprise, not just to the freeloaders in the play’s diegesis but also to the audience. DeLuca-Verley effectively plays the role of a person struggling to survive in a difficult world, and when her character falls in love with the pilot Yang Sun (played with brash macho charm by Marrick Smith in the two performances I saw), the audience can easily feel that love is indeed the greatest catastrophe that can befall a woman, a valid reason for vultures (as one song puts it) to circle.
The three gods are dressed in extraordinary costumes that look rather like trench coats that are trying to be zoot suits with incredibly padded shoulders, and they wear shoes that give them an extra six inches or so of height, making them tower over the mere mortals in the show. They walk in a stylized way and generally make their appearances to the tune of (melo-)dramatic music. Just as Brecht intended, the gods become more and more exhausted as the show (and the world’s wickedness) goes on. The three actors skillfully negotiate the gods’ refusal to talk about economic reality, and their disappearance at the end of the show (the opposite of a deus ex machine, since the gods leave just when they are most needed) leaves the poor Shen Te arguably worse off than she was in the beginning, since she is now about to have a baby and has made a considerable number of enemies.
Previous performances of Der gute Mensch von Sezuan that I have seen did not include music this prominently, and hence the music came as a revelation to me. It was written by Beyer especially for this show, and I found it to be quite enjoyable; in fact even many days after the last performance I found myself humming some of the music in my head. The music, too, interrupts the action, slowing everything down, but it is performed well and effectively integrated into the action of the play. The key song, at least to my mind, is “The Song of the Smoke,” probably the most philosophical and least political/economic of all the songs in the show. It is positively meditative in its emphasis on breathing in and breathing out and, ultimately, on letting go. To me this meditative emphasis is part of the whole play: it is about breathing in and breathing out, sucking in what is happening and letting it go again. The actors, singers, and musicians achieve this effect even though (as they are quick to inform us) the theater’s regulations do not actually allow them to smoke on stage.
There was no attempt in this staging to indicate anything even remotely “Chinese” in the play. None of the actors looked Chinese, no one was wearing Chinese costumes, and none of the props seemed particularly Chinese. In fact the setting was, more or less, exactly what it really was: the Philip Chosky Theater at Carnegie Mellon’s Purnell Center. Some of the actors took on notable accents. Dylan Putas, for instance, who played the sheriff (and also percussion) at the performances I saw, talked like an oversexed southern cop (who at one point seems to be putting the same-sex moves on Shui Ta) who has escaped from a 1950s television show, while Mrs. Yang, Yang Sun’s mother, becomes a Jewish mother wishing people “Shalom”; she seems to have escaped from a New York stage comedy of the 1960s onto the Pittsburgh stage. At first the disregard for any attempt at theatrical realism bothered me (striking me as a caricature of Brecht rather than what Brecht really wanted) but in the end I was won over to it and started enjoying it. At a minimum these strange, out-of-place accents add humor to the play, and—like so much else in the staging—they contribute to the sense of performativity and playfulness.
In any undergraduate production most of the actors on stage will be the same age (between eighteen and twenty-one), and this was the case with this production as well, of course. No matter how good they are as actors, people this age have a hard time portraying older people, such as Mrs. Yang or Shu Fu, the rich man who admires Shen Te. This did not matter quite as much in this production, because of the continuing emphasis on theatricality and performativity throughout; in other words, the actors did not have to become old—they simply had to be young people performing the role of older people. Although the play is in large part about grinding poverty and its negative impact on human life, it was difficult to believe that anyone on stage had ever actually experienced such poverty. A number of the actors, however, such as Annie Heise, who played Mrs. Shin, effectively mastered body ticks that suggested problems with alcohol or drug withdrawal; Mrs. Shin seemed to have the dt’s from the moment she walked on stage, although her condition gradually improved as her economic prospects looked up.
My major criticisms of the performance would be that it could have been speeded up somewhat. As it was, the performance clocked in at almost three hours. As amusing as almost all of it was, and as much as I enjoyed the theatricality involved, I found myself tired at the end of each show. The frequent interruptions of the plot had the effect of slowing things down—but since Peter Kleinert had already cut significant chunks from the play (as the audience is reminded quite explicitly more than once), it would have been possible to cut even more and achieve a production that only slightly exceeded two hours (perhaps two hours and fifteen minutes would have been ideal). I also would have enjoyed a bit more audience interaction in the play; Corey Cott nicely interacts with the audience at the beginning of the show, but then that aspect of Brechtian dramaturgy is more or less dropped for the rest of the evening, and this struck me as rather strange, especially after Cott had gone to such trouble to get the audience involved at the beginning. The action of the play was also interrupted about six or seven times by an actress walking onto stage and explaining various things to the audience or the other actors, and while this device was initially amusing, I found myself growing tired of it at the end. Finally, I noticed that the actors would frequently drive points home, almost as if they did not trust the audience to get the points they were making otherwise. Yang Sun, for instance, does not just tell Shui Ta that he “touched” Shen Te; he also makes a gesture indicating sexual foreplay. Such theatrical gestures are fine in and of themselves, but in sum they suggested to me that the actors did not necessarily expect the audience to get their points without having to drive them home forcefully. The actors may well be right about this much of the time, but here too I would urge following the advice of “The Song of the Smoke” and being willing to let go (not bad advice for teachers like myself occasionally, either). Audiences do not need to get every single point, and it’s perfectly all right for them to be a little confused occasionally. The insistence on driving everything home struck me as strangely un-Brechtian in an otherwise thoroughly Brechtian performance.
It was clear in the talk-back that, in spite of their study of Brecht, not all of the actors had completely grasped some basic aspects of Brecht’s life and work (let alone his ideas about theater). One actress, for instance, suggested that Brecht had located the play in China in order not to offend the Nazi authorities in Germany; I pointed out that Brecht’s play Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches (part of which happened to have been presented in a student production at Carnegie Mellon only a few weeks earlier, although, alas, I missed that production) was clearly set in Nazi Germany and aimed to offend the Nazi rulers. Another actor claimed that intermissions were unknown in Germany. Exactly where such misconceptions came from, I have no idea. I asked how students in training at one of the premier undergraduate drama programs in the United States felt about being asked to perform in a relatively non-commercial, anti-mainstream way by a visiting German director (from the eastern, i.e. formerly socialist part of Germany, no less!), and the actors responded that it had been a lot of fun. So evidently not all young American actors react negatively to Brecht. And this, in spite or perhaps even because of its Brechtian and political emphasis, was a fun evening of the theater for both the audience and the actors. I look forward to many more such productions in the future.
—Stephen Brockmann, Carnegie Mellon University