BWW Reviews: Theatre Pro Rata's GOOD WOMAN OF SETZUAN is Certainly Something to Contemplate
There are two types of people in the world: those who consciously try to do good things and those who just don't care. I fall into the latter of the two. Now, I'm not saying I'm a bad person---I just mean, holding an elevator for someone, leaving space for a car to merge during rush hour and other acts of unnecessary kindness aren't really my thing. There are so many other revolving pieces in my life that "doing good" just got pushed to the bottom of the priority pile---sorry bout it.
That being said, it's a particularly wearisome Monday evening when I manage to see Theatre Pro Rata's production of GOOD WOMAN OF SETZUAN, and let's be honest---I'm in a foul mood. The lights dim, and immediately I check my phone to countdown the minutes until I can leave. Fast-forward a few hours---by the end of the play, I was glad I made the trip to see the show.
GOOD WOMAN OF SETZUAN is about---ding-dong---a woman in the town of Setzuan. The gods have traveled far and wide seeking good people who still live by the guiding principles they've passed down. Having traveled near and far they are disappointed to find that there's just a ton of greed, lies, selfishness and flat out evil---surprise, surprise. The only person of moral structure is the leper among men, the young town floozy by the name Shen Te (Kelsey Cramer).
Naturally, Shen Te is rewarded for her good-natured behavior with money, which she uses to purchase a tobacco shop. The shop is both a gift and a test from the gods. Soon, the pressure becomes too much, people start taking advantage of her niceness and ultimately making the shop, a "house of assignation" and crime---driving Shen Te to create Shui Ta, an invented, meaner, stricter "cousin" and alter-ego. But balance is never easy, and soon Shui Ta takes over and Shen Te becomes a fleeting memory. Through series of events (which are just entirely too difficult to explain here) Shui Ta aka Shen Te is put on trial by the gods and they are forced to dissect this conundrum they've created. It's all too hard to explain, which is why you should just see the show. Yes, I said, "see the show."
When the cast finishes taking their bows and the lights come back up, the small but generous evening crowd applauds the production while I can only linger there for a minute. Usually I dash out the door, bolt down the street and pop inside the nearest bar for a much welcomed "thank God I can finally speak freely" cocktail but this time I didn't. I waited, got up and made the trek back to my vehicle in silence. The production managed to form quite the question mark in my thinking. Is there a way to stay true to you while also appeasing the demands of others? I didn't know and I still don't know.
When Bertolt Brecht created GOOD WOMAN OF SETZUAN, he wanted his audiences to forget about conventional theater and escape. He also wanted his play to stimulate conversation and create moral contemplation. This production---though it never seemed to quite hit its stride---managed to do all of those things. It certainly forced me to move past my idea of conventional theater, which Theatre Pro Rata does rather well---with the exception of some very distracting cloud movements during a particularly long-winded scene---they use the lighting, spacing and props both creatively and effectively.
The show also caused me to create a dialogue with myself about my own moral code. Should I strive to be a good person and please everyone or will I only tire trying? So, Theatre Pro Rata can check those two off the list as well.
Now, maybe it was the script or maybe it was a Monday, but either way the performances can quickly be described as across the board. While most of the actors portray a plethora of roles, some managed to really give something special. Amber Bjork and Molly Pach are two fine examples. Bjork manages to find unique voices/characteristics that separate each of the family members and make them easily identifiable when having full conversations with well...herself. Pach also managed to take her individual roles and breathe a little life into them.
Somewhere in the middle, we find our hero played by Cramer---whether her choices were effective or not is really a matter of opinion. In her role of Shen Te, she does a great job of being soft and sweet (but that's the easy part). It was in her role of Shui Ta that she lacked a little presence. I never found myself fully committed to believing her performance as this dominant, and intimidating character.