Review: Taylor Mac's The Brecht Girl in THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN
Those who only associate playwright Bertolt Brecht with dense dramas and archly-erotic Weimar musicals should get a delightful kick in the pants from director Lear DeBessonet's freewheeling mounting of John Willett's light and comical translation of The Good Person Of Szechwan.While a ridiculous spirit reminiscent of Charles Ludlam is certainly prominent, The Foundry Theatre's production, which has just transferred from La MaMa to The Public, is a crock pot full of styles, ranging from burlesque to bluegrass to campy to Chinese opera to commedia dell'arte to musical comedy, deliciously simmering into an eclectically blended stew.
The spoon with which DeBessonet skillfully stirs up the ingredients is Obie-winning theatre artist Taylor Mac, who claims the gender identification of "performer" and prefers to be referred to with the pronoun "judy."
Set as a parable in the Chinese province of Szechwan, Mac appears as the sweet and kind-hearted Shen Te, a prostitute of modest means who is unknowingly being tested by three gods (Vinie Burrows, Mia Katigbak and Mary Shultz who all glimmer with sageness) in search of a truly good person.
After Shen Te provides the trio of travelers with a free roof to sleep under for a night, the gods insist on paying and hand her enough money so she could stop selling her body and start selling tobacco in her own shop.
But with financial security comes visits from her underprivileged pals, and Shen Te finds herself so unable resist helping those in need that her generosity threatens to send her back into poverty. So she takes on the guise of a ruthlessly protective male cousin, Shui Ta, who knows how to say "no." Things get complicated when Shen Te falls for a penniless pilot, Yang Sun (a genial and hunky Clifton Duncan), who may be more interested in her money than her heart and the audience is left to wonder if it's truly possible for a good person to survive in this world.Taylor Mac is an endearing powerhouse as Shen Te, delectably sincere with just a tinge of campiness. The character's on-stage musical transformation into Shui Ta is a fierce rage of empowerment; not for becoming male, but for not being ashamed to look out for her own well-being.
The design invokes a fun, glitzy-on-a-budget look with Clint Ramos' culture-clashing costumes and Matt Saunders' do-it-yourself set, which includes coffee can footlights and a village made up of what Pete Seeger would certainly call little boxes on the hillside.
The members of the multi-ethnic company who play the residents of Szechwan wear a modified style of Chinese opera makeup, offering the appearance of a community without trying to make them look Chinese.
A quartet of musicians named The Lisps are already playing catchy folky compositions by Cesar Alvarez as the audience enters. While not strictly a musical, Alvarez pops in some story-enlivening songs and the musicians punch up comic bits with burlesque sound effects.
Among them is Eric Farber, who plays a briefcase. (You have to see it.)