Culture | Capitalist conundrums

"The Good Person of Sichuan" pits goodness against greed

Shen-Te, a kindly hooker, puts off a client in order to play host to three gods when they pass through Sichuan on their quest for pious mortals. She is the only person in the province good enough to do so. Such is the opening gambit of The Good Person of Sichuan, McGill Theatre Lab’s latest offering in Moyse Hall.

It’s a titillating premise for a play, and one which is skillfully developed in Brecht’s hands. The Gods, in an attempt to discover whether morality still exists in the world, reward Shen-Te with one thousand silver dollars – enough money for her to buy a small tobacco shop. The shop is her crucible: can Shen-Te maintain her innocence when beset by capitalist responsibility and opportunist relations? Her virtue is tested by greedy cousins, destitute former landlords, and penniless pilot Yang Sun, with whom she inexplicably falls in love.

The actors, for the most part, do a wonderful job of exploring Shen-Te’s plight. The lead is played on alternate nights by Alexandra Montagnese and Arlen Aguayo Stewart. Montagnese performed for the press preview, and I was impressed by her ability to bring out the contradictions in Shen-Te’s character. Although she is the eponymous Good Person of Sichuan, Shen-Te’s goodness can make her seem fickle. She wastes her profit on bowls of rice for the poor and homeless, forgets their needs in a heartbeat when she sells the tobacco shop to raise funds for the desperate Yang Sun, and ends up unable to support even herself. Montagnese makes such naïve charity believable. What is more impressive, when passive Shen-Te finds it necessary to dress up as Shui-Ta, Shen-Te’s stern and business-minded “cousin,” Montagnese  accomplishes the rare feat of letting us see through her artifice: we know that Shui-Ta is really Shen-Te, even though the play’s characters are taken in. I only wish she could put a little more life into all the platitudes she has to spout – lines like “naturally extended, one’s hand is equally ready to give as to receive,” often come across as trite. It will be fascinating to see how Aguayo Stewart interprets Shen-Te/Shui-Ta.

And Shen-Te isn’t the only cross-dresser in the play. A lack of male actors made for creative casting decisions. Brecht’s Three Gods are played by a delightful trio of goddesses. Watch out especially for Alexandra Meikleham’s performance as God 1; she pulls off the supercilious diva attitude the goddesses seem to be going for with aplomb, mainly due to her commanding stage presence. Unfortunately, Kate Sketchley is less convincing as Yang Sun; she just doesn’t seem comfortable as a priggish (male) pilot, and makes for something of a dead fish of a love interest.

The enormous cast of supporting characters is played competently. Every actor has several roles, and most manage to differentiate the small bit-parts convincingly, including pulling off rapid-fire onstage “costume” changes (often as simple as removing a hat or putting on a false pig snout) with elegance. The many puppets used as “extras,” though, just confuse the action, especially when live actors “talk” for them from across stage.

In terms of production, composer Danji Buck-Moore’s score is very apropos; it evokes Kurt Weill, Brecht’s principal collaborator, to brilliant effect. But the set design alone would be reason enough to go see Good Person. The program notes that the works of George Grosz, Weimar-era painter and draughtsman, served as inspiration for the sets, and they definitely have a rich interwar quirkiness to them. I swear Miyazaki, Hokusai, even Art Spiegelman’s MAUS must have factored into set (and costume) design as well. The tobacco shop is especially well constructed, allowing the audience to see through into the “back room” and the “street” behind it as well as the main action in the “store” proper. 
So the acting and production are (with only a few exceptions), great. It’s clear the Theatre Lab crew has puzzled through every aspect of the play’s dramatic method. But what about the moral? After all, there had better be a take-home lesson to a three-and-half-hour-long performance.

Brecht, a sworn Marxist, originally entitled Good Person “Die Ware Liebe,” or “The Product Love,” a title with a strong political message. In Theatre Lab’s production, inequality and greed certainly crop up repeatedly. But Director Myrna Wyatt Selkirk seems to have played down the anti-capitalist aspects of the piece. Perhaps because of the strength of the actors in those roles, the conflict between Shen-Te and the Gods is most salient in this production. Who are the Gods to determine morality? And how is Shen-Te to act on their morality in an imperfect world?  Shen-Te’s plight poses more questions than it can answer – Theatre Lab adopts a contemplative rather than didactic attitude toward the text. Brecht might not have approved, but I think we should be grateful. Rather than write off the production as a Marxist parable, you’ll be pondering Shen-Te’s plight for days.