Lear deBessonet's astounding production (for The Foundry Theatre) of Good Person of Szechwan, now running at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre, presents a captivating rendering of the 1943 social comedy that not only removes the work from the dusty academic bookshelf, but speaks to the contemporary world.
Three gods are on the hunt for a good person, who lives according to the precepts they have handed down. At the play's start, their quest has been fruitless. Lives are based on selfishness and greed even in the Szechwan province of China, where they are currently exploring. Only the poor, compassionate prostitute Shen Te wins their favor, when she offers the gods lodging and they reward her with money that she uses to open a tobacco shop.
But her inherent kindness cannot withstand her group of friends, all of them poor and in demand of Shen Te's money, food, and hospitality. It gets so bad for her that she must create a male persona, a pragmatic cousin named Shui Ta, who keeps order in such a way that a young woman cannot. Her goodness (and his ruthlessness) is put to even further test when Shen Te suddenly falls for Yang Sun, a suicidal pilot, and is forced into selling the shop for his benefit; it's up to the Gods to intervene.
Shen Te (and Shui Ta) is portrayed by the inimitable, Obie-winning theater artist Taylor Mac. But he doesn't merely portray Shen Te, he becomes her. With his face painted eggshell white, and wearing a flimsy red dress and gold heels (the intentionally funny costumes are designed by Clint Ramos), the gifted and versatile Mac imbues Shen Te with a heart-breaking, unflappable goodness and empathy, even as her parasitic friends (and more parasitic lover) grab at her for everything. And when Mac transforms into Shen Te's alternate persona, the buttoned-up Shui Ta (in a bowler hat, flimsy moustache, and pinstripe suit that suggests Charlie Chaplin by way of Damon Runyon), you can tell Shen Te is never quite comfortable in her male skin.
The twelve other performers are similarly gifted as the Costellos to Mac's Abbott. Obie-winning playwright/performer Lisa Kron is hilariously over-the-top as hunched landlady Mrs. Mi Tzu, as well as the big-haired and long-nailed Mrs. Yang, the mother of Yang Sun (Clifton Duncan, who brings gravitas and surprising likability to the role). David Turner is an inspired vaudevillian in the role of Wang, the Waterseller, who does not believe there is a single good person in existence. Annie Golden, Vinie Burrows, and Mia Katigbak bring an air of tired authority to the ghostly white Gods, whose seemingly arbitrary quest for a good person in Szechwan sets the play in motion.
Using a dexterous translation by late Brecht scholar John Willett and theater techniques ranging from kabuki to musical theater, deBessonet's fast-paced and engaging production throbs with ache and sadness even in its most over-the-top moments (and, yes, there are a handful of those behind the tin can footlights). An extra level of timely urgency is provided by the musical score, performed live by the indie rock band The Lisps, and Matt Saunders' scenic design, which includes rows and rows of miniature cardboard shanties, reminiscent of the post-hurricanes ravages of Katrina and Sandy. Most importantly, deBessonet presents the story in such a way that it feels not like you're watching a Brechtian morality play, but a new work by a troupe of politically active artists commenting on the current state of society. In a world where fiscal crises dominate headlines, and good people are getting harder and harder to find, it's difficult not to take Shen Te's story to heart.