"Revelatory" was the best word to describe The Foundry Theatre's production of Bertolt Brecht's Good Person of Szechwan in February of this year when it played La MaMa. Under the inventive direction of Lear deBessonet and starring the Obie Award-winning theater artist Taylor Mac in an exhilarating performance as the good-hearted prostitute Shen Te and her ruthless male cousin Shui Ta, this was Brecht for 2013, a revival that breathed contemporary theatrical life into a 1943 social comedy that seemed firmly implanted in the shelves of academia.
How lucky we are, then, that this Good Person has been remounted at The Public Theater, a mere 0.28 miles away from where it began. Aside from one cast member, nothing has been lost in the six-minute journey from theater to theater. Everything that made deBessonet's staging unique, from the playful cardboard scenery by Matt Saunders to the Drama Desk Award-nominated original score by César Alvarez and The Lisps, has been retained. And Mac is as exceptional as ever.
As the play begins, three Gods (played by the appropriately world-weary Vinie Burrows, Mia Katigbak, and Mary Shultz) are on the quest to find a good person, one who lives according to the rules they've handed down. It's a journey that heretofore has been fruitless. In the Szechwan province of China, everyone is a parasite, wanting more and more and more. Only the sweet and penniless prostitute Shen Te (Mac, in Kabuki white-face and gold heels) finds their favor, offering them lodging. The Gods reward her with funding she can use to open a tobacco shop. The money is simultaneously a gift and a test; now that she's endowed, can she stay a good person?
Shen Te's kindness becomes her downfall — she cannot say no to her equally poor friends, all of whom crave her hospitality and give nothing in return. She is forced to invent a male persona, a ruthless, pragmatic cousin named Shui Ta, who can keep order in ways that the young woman is unable. When Shen Te falls for Yang Sun, a jobless pilot, her goodness (and Shui Ta's ruthless pragmatism) is put even further to the test until the Gods have to intervene.
Whether wearing the flimsy red dress and slip of Shen Te, or the Chaplinesque pinstripe suit and bowler hat of Shui Ta (pitch-perfectly designed by Clint Ramos), Mac throws his whole body (and then some) into his performance, crafting a heartbreakingly human Shen Te and a Shui Ta who is never quite comfortable in that guise. More impressive is Mac's transformation from one to the other, in the form of a truly incredible song-and-dance called "Make a Change." It's one of the best production numbers of the year.
He is matched by the 12 other cast members, from the terrific vaudevillian David Turner as Wang the Waterseller, to the hilarious Lisa Kron, who pulls double duty as Shen Te's stooped-over landlady Mrs. Mi Tzu and Yang Sun's long-nailed Jersey housewife mother, Mrs. Yang. (Yang Sun is played by the good-natured Clifton Duncan). The remaining ensemble members, Kate Benson, Brooke Ishibashi, Paul Juhn, Ephraim Birney, Darryl Winslow, and Jack Allen Greenfield, provide inspired comic turns.
With this production, deBessonet cements her status as one of the most inventive young directors working today. Fast-paced and with its tongue firmly planted in cheek, this is a staging that also radiates sadness and heartache, even in its biggest moments. Add to that a nimble translation by John Willett and a funky, countrified score performed live by Lisps members Eric Farber, Lorenzo Wolff, Ben Simon, and Sammy Tunis, and you have a Brechtian morality play that doesn't feel like one.
Instead, you feel like you're watching a play that was written in the here and now, one that asks a tough question: "Where are all the good people in a society of corporate thieves and cold-blooded killers?" Only in the theater, behind the tin-can footlights, can that question be answered.