Written by political playwright, activist and poet Bertolt Brecht in 1941 and adapted by the Bay Area’s beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, Cal Shakes’ “The Good Person of Szechwan” challenges audience members to do more than escape into the imaginary world of theater — it insists that they engage with real-world injustices. Filled with delightful disrespect for the fourth wall, outspoken, honest characters and ironically exaggerated humor, this production pierces straight to the heart of the complicated relationship Brecht lays out between morality and economic status.
On June 9, when the blackout of the award-winning masterpiece fell, the wooden scaffolds of the outdoor Bruns Amphitheater were appropriately shaken by a standing ovation. Even after sitting outside on a chilly night for three hours, the roaring crowd demonstrated in stunning force that it would choose to experience the mystical and thought-provoking world of “The Good Person” again in a heartbeat.
The world in question begins with “three well-fed and well-rested,” as one character quips, ancient gods on their search for one good person in the impoverished, callous city of Szechwan. As the production progresses, audience members are asked (at times directly) to measure their own conceptions of “goodness” against the actions of both the show’s desperately poor and its extravagantly rich. One question looms large throughout: Is goodness only possible when survival is already assured?
As the play opens, stage lights burn bright, and Szechwan water seller Wang (played with heartfelt authenticity by Lance Gardner) emerges from behind colossal Hollywood sign-style letters spelling out “GOOD.” At more than 15 feet tall, the letters’ sheer size makes them difficult to comprehend, causing them to all but lose their collective meaning. This effect is much like the experience of trying to grapple with the general and hugely broad idea of “goodness” itself.
Wang sets the fiery tone of the production with a sarcastic welcoming of the audience to “Szechwaaaan.” In turn, a hilariously blank-faced young boy (Sharon Shao) sprints onstage to mutely flash a hand-drawn sign: “Brecht never went to China.”
We soon meet Shen Te (the captivating Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), the kindhearted sex worker and only person good enough to welcome the three gods into her tarp-covered shack for the night. The gods compensate Shen Te well for her hospitality, providing her with enough money to start her own business and earn a living that is socially deemed honest. But, possessing more than just the bare minimum for survival for the first time in her life, Shen finds herself facing a new challenge: balancing her natural generosity in the midst of the increasingly desperate needs and desires of her fellow townspeople.
The talented Cal Shakes cast shows off its versatility in this production, with each performer taking on multiple roles within the hard-luck world of Szechwan. The electricity with which the actors imbue the show is no small surprise, as the playbill is packed with Bay Area locals and favorites — McKenzie is originally from the Bay Area, and featured actors including Margo Hall (Cal Shakes’ “black odyssey,” “Fences,” “Twelfth Night”), Gardner (Berkeley Repertory’s “The Good Book”) and Anthony Fusco (Cal Shakes’ “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Pygmalion”) have experience performing with Bay Area groups.
It is a rare and wonderful treat to witness a production in which each ensemble member could have had a one-person show. Hall’s kindhearted elderly woman is heartbreakingly endearing and utterly human, and Dean Linnard’s policeman is hilarious in his overly clipped and abrupt way of speaking. Not to mention Phil Wong’s carpenter, who epitomizes an extravagant and corrupt shopkeeper.
In this production, the audience is allowed strikingly easy access to Brecht’s often abstract and heavily intellectual language and beliefs. Cal Shakes’ all-star cast members demonstrate stunning mastery over the inner life of their characters; each actor has clearly made definitive choices on whether to draw from personal experience or larger-than-life caricatures to convey their character. Both choices are effective — the former maintains the heart of this production, and the latter’s humorous nature makes the audience more receptive to the universal truth within some of Brecht’s more bluntly idealistic and radical lines.
“The Good Person of Szechwan” powerfully “Cal Shakes” up audience conceptions of what it means to be good, and who couldn’t use a little shaking up these days? Do not miss this production — it is worth not just one, but multiple visits!