Richard Patterson, 10/2008
While The Tempest plays at their 13th Street home six days a week, on recent Mondays CSC has presented another of its annual First Look readings series, this time centered on the work of 20th century theatrical pioneer Bertolt Brecht.
These First Look readings – which take place after only an afternoon’s worth of rehearsal time – serve mainly as impromptu artistic experiments, whereby the theatre company can mount classic texts in front of paying audiences in order to explore their viability as possible full productions in future Classic Stage season lineups.
This week’s reading of Brecht’s moral melodrama The Good Person of Sezuan, featuring film star Maggie Gyllenhaal, a last minute replacement for under-the-weather Elizabeth Marvel (currently starring in Fifty Words off-Broadway), gave a top-notch cast a chance to explore the underbelly of modern society through this Sezuan province-set tale of the corruption of greed by the complex struggles of modern life.
Water seller Wang begins the play by introducing himself and his poverty-stricken home of Sezuan. Three gods visit the province, met with inhospitable local residents who refuse them keep. All except one, the poor prostitute Shen Te (Gyllenhaal), who opens up her home to the weary spirits after brief hesitation. In return, the gods give her a thousand silver dollars with which to become a better person. She uses the money to buy a tobacco shop, returning the gods’ favor by giving food and shelter her friends and enemies alike.
Faced with the consequences of her goodly actions, Shen Te creates a practical, no-nonsense alter ego for herself in the form of her make-believe cousin Shui Ta. But while assuming the identity of Shui Ta can solve some of Shen Te’s problems, others are more complicated. Her love for the conniving pilot Sun Yang (Jason Butler Harner) is sacrificed for her betrothal to greedy barber Shu Fu (Ben Shenkman), and Shen Te’s profligate intake of the local poor is soon exploited by Shui Ta when the unemployed are recruited as hand-to-mouth laborers in Shen Te’s newly founded tobacco factory. The more corrupt she becomes, the better off she is in society. As she tries to improve her standing with the gods, all remnants of her personal happiness threaten to crumble at her feet.
In a distinctly modern choice, Gyllenhaal made the Jekyll-and-Hyde transition from kind, altruistic Shen Te to cutthroat Shui Ta by donning a pair of sunglasses as well as widening her gait and loosening her swagger. Nevertheless, her warm vocal inflections changed only minimally, making the acceptance of her dual personalities amongst the townspeople with whom she comes in regular contact somewhat implausible. This could be a strength or weakness, depending on how one looks at the play. Is it preferable that Shen Te’s moral deception be one largely accepted by an oblivious public or a construction of her fundamentally corrupted internal nature?
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