The Good Person of Setzuan

The Wilma Theater, Philadelphia

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Person of Setzuan” is a monster of a play to stage for contemporary audiences, it’s long, didactic and unnerving. During WWII, Brecht, then in self-imposed exile from Germany and writing anti-fascist and polemical plays. On the downside, productions of the play then and since has been hardwired with offensive Asian stereotypes, which is just one of the reasons why the current Wilma Theater production is so vital.

In a program note, Director Justin Jain explains he wanted to “… re-centering Brecht’s story as an AAPI Asian American Pacific Islander narrative. This play have been historically seen non- Asian bodies donning rice hats, painted almond eyes, fans and silk squalor. A rampant, harmful Orientalism that is still pervasive in productions done to this day. This performance instead is a pan- Asian attack on representation, appropriation and. White bodied supremacy that challenges audiences to engage with their own cultural awareness (and ignorance) of the Asian body on the American stage. It is messy, dangerous, and unapologetically loud. Just like Setzuan.”

The story unfolds when three gods (disguised as tourists) come to Setzuan to test humanity as they seek shelter for the night and are turned away by everyone except the good-hearted prostitute Shen Te. The gods reward Shen Te with enough money for her to start a cigar business.

But Shen Te gets carried away with generosity to neighbors and relatives, soon enough she has to mortgage off her assets. Backed into a financial corner, she resorts to disguising herself as her cousin Shu Ta, a conniving businessman gets out of financial woes, however ruthlessly. But soon, her troubles multiply even as her business thrives. Of course, all of this melodrama is just Brecht devise to hold up a mirror to the ills of the world. As the gods comment on the sidelines and the characters deceive and betray their own loyalties and humanity for profit.

With a running time of close to four hours, Brecht’s polemics and his pleas for humanity can easily come off as thematically bloated, and thanks to Jain’s pacing and theatrical bravery that doesn’t let Brecht’s messaging cloy.

Jain leans into a lot of comedy to let off some dramaturgical steam, and the three gods- Matteo Scammel, Jared McLenigan, and Ross Beschler- are the operatic stooges loosed upon the audience, their echoey voices booming and dripping with snarky sincerity as they bounce around the theater flexing their torsos like models in 50s physique mags and changing into kimonos. There are also three captivating musical scenes and a rousing ensemble dance number with Tai Chi-esque choreography that kick starts Act II.  

It is above all else, fiery morality play about the hypocrisies we accept to survive, often at all  moral costs  As Shen Te’s drama plays out, Wong, who carries water yoked to his back to the townspeople is the moral, spiritual center of the story.

Wong is attacked by a neighbor who smashes his hand so he can no longer carry water, he cries out in pain and despair at his fate. Actor-dancer Jungwoon Kim’s anguished soliloquy in Chinese and it is underscored by with a cathartic ballad sung from a balcony by Jordan McCree and cello accompaniment by multi-instrumentalist Mel Hsu. Both musicians co-composed the music for the play. Speaking in Chinese during this scene Kim gives a stunning performance and tells just as much with his mesmerizing soliloquy and expressive movement.

Among them Melanie Finister gets some of the biggest laughs as Shen Te’s all-knowing Landlady and as the conniving, bejeweled Mrs. Chin. McLenigan has a vocal field day as God no. 1 and the cop who is ready to invoke the absurdities of the city ordinances with lockjaw accuracy. Makoto Hirano is fine as the reluctant cad Yang Sun, who seduces her so he can get the money for flight training school, further complicates her fate. Campbell O’Hare and Sarah Gliko portraying several roles round out this formidable ensemble cast.

Bi Jean Ngo switches off as the soul-searching Shen Te and her ruthless alter ego Shui Ta, in both parts switching out English and Chinese. Ngo gives a naturalized tour de force performance that is both subtle and operatic throughout.

The production designs are superb, starting with the labyrinthine set by designer Steven Difala that keeps giving, in tandem with Eugene Lew’s transporting sound effects and Krista Smith’s noirish shadows and prismatic lighting designs.

Jain a bold enough director in his debut to orchestrate this complex work to take chances. It has some very rough edges starting with its length. Jain’s mosaic of theatricality – from political and physical theater, vaudevillian mayhem, musical drama, and social unrest that is as relevant as ever. Once again the Wilma Theater mounts challenging productions and reminds what theater could be and should be.

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