Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Good Person of Setzuan" from Carnegie-Mellon University

Those hoping for a quiet, inconspicuous night of sitting anonymously in a dark room watching people onstage may be suprised by moments of Carnegie-Mellon University's production of "Good Person of Setzuan" by Bertolt Brecht. The play is the story of Shen Te, a prostitute commisioned by the gods to "be good" and the parasites who latch onto that goodness, sucking it dry for all its worth.

Now, rest assured, Eponymous did homework. Brecht's original play featured actors speaking to the audience and random outbreaks of song, all of which are held true to in this version, albeit modernized and specialized for Pittsburgh audiences. The songs are best when staged naturally, rather than everyone running to the front of the stage for ten bars and then retreating, and when they are used to reveal how desperate the lives of the citizens of Setzuan really are. (i.e."In Our Country" and "The Song of the Day of St. Never To Be") A point which, given the humor of the performances, doesn't really come across when the actors are just talking about how miserable their lives are.

The set looks skeletal, with visible rigging and bare scaffolding so that you never forget you're in a theatre, watching actors - who you can see changing upstage if you're into that sort of thing. Costumes hang on racks in plain sight and seem like they've been lovingly pulled out of several designer dumpsters (shoe enthusiasts will be thrilled throughout). The rag-tag effects, along with the music and use of black underwear, make the overall effect "The Beggar's Opera" meets "Cabaret"/"Chicago". Video elements are used sporadically and beg the question, "Does it really amplify the message of the play to have close-ups of the actors on screen as they play onstage like a black-and-white movie?" Eponymous says no, but it does look nice.

Spoiler Alert * (If you're not up on your Brecht)

The female/male lead, Shen Te, is played transformatively by Ava DeLuca-Verley. She plays Shen Te, the ex-prostitute, as the picture of soft, do-gooding feminity. On the other hand, her Shui Ta, the "cousin" of Shen Te who appears when dirty work needs to be done, looks like Bob Dylan with the street-smart, masculine energy of Lou Reed, complete with New York Accent. Annie Heise as the perpetually shaky Mrs. Shin is also unforgettable, but the show is such a well-built ensemble show, everyone will have their favorite character/actor, with all characters/actors worthy of being called favorite.

The entire ensemble cast really shows a remarkable talent seldom seen in large theatres. You see, there's a reason most shows do not involve actors instigating a dialogue directly with the audience. The reason is it's flipping hard to do. A bad house gets only silence, which can be unnerving. Or one too-rowdy patron can easily make the whole room shuffle uncomfortably. But, the entire cast gives off the impression of adept control, putting the audience at ease to respond or not. Corey Cott as Wang evokes a young Hugh Jackman and is fortunately just as charming in his daring interactions with the audience.

 The actors radiate freedom onstage, even free to go back after a missed line or comment on a wardrobe malfunction. And this gives the audience freedom to laugh, relax and listen to what could become an unforgiving critique on humanity, but never does - although you probably will find the ending heartbreaking, or disturbing, or hilarious, or some potent combination. - Link to the Carnegie-Mellon School of Drama Box Office

- Eponymous admits a certain bias. After all, Eponymous was President of Carnegie-Mellon University until a coup of belligerent lawn gnomes forced Epony to abdicate and retire to the North Hills of Albuquerque. But, it's all right. There are hot air ballons here.

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