Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Good Person of Setzuan
Frank Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Aunt Raini


Janis Hardy, Patrick Bailey, Ellen Apel,
and Katherine Ferrand

Photo by Tony Nelson
The folks at Frank Theatre, fearlessly helmed by Wendy Knox, have never been known to shy away from a challenge or let adversity interfere with their mission of presenting work that "challenges the everyday perception of the audience through the exploration of ideas and issues of social, political and/or cultural concerns." So, what if last summer the rights to the play selected for their fall production were pulled by the publisher, and the venue they originally had lined up changed hands and was no longer available> Presto, change-o, a new title, a new venue, and a jump into the deep end.

The result is a bright and wondrous production of Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Setzuan staged at the empty hull of a former Rainbow Foods supermarket in the highly diverse precinct where Hiawatha Avenue crosses Lake Street. Knox had mounted the play a few years ago at Vanderbilt University, so was able to bring the production up to speed on a short time line—and up to speed it is. Like much of Brecht, this is an epic work, three hours of stage time, but the production is so engaging, imaginative, and adept at keeping its audience on board that the three hours pass with ease.

The performance takes place in what was the receiving area at the back of the store, where swinging double doors shielded this mysterious space from the eyes of shoppers. To get there we cross the open sell-floor, a vast space with shelving, freezer cases, and check-out lanes removed. This has been turned into a mock encampment for homeless people, a 2016 Hooverville, dotted with tents identified by how their inhabitant scrapes together a living—electrical repairs, haircuts, book sellers, bicycle repairs—each surrounded by heaps of discarded objects. Properties designer Kellie Larson assembled this array of urban society's debris, largely satiric but with an after taste of sadness. By the time we enter the "theater" space, we are in the mindset of a community where nothing is new, every item has been used and re-used, squeezing every bit of usefulness out of objects and the people whose hands they pass through. We are in Brecht's imagined Setzuan, where the search for a good person is set.

As the play opens, Wang, a water seller, has learned that three gods are scouring the land in search of a truly good person. He knows he is not worthy of this accolade, but is determined to find someone in Setzuan to restore the gods' faith in human beings. He asks various prospects to lodge three weary travelers (not revealing their lofty status) and repeatedly strikes out until Shen Te, a prostitute, agrees to help, despite her circumstances. After a good night's rest, the gods reveal themselves to Shen Te. Elated to have met a truly good person at last, they reward her with a thousand gold coins, with which she purchases the inventory of a small tobacco shop. She believes this will allow her to give up her life of sin and earn the means to devote herself to doing good work.

But noble intentions prove not to be enough. As soon as neighbors and old acquaintances hear that Shen Te has run into good luck, they appear on her doorstep, pleading for lodging, food, loans, and other hand-outs, even before she has earned a single coin from her shop, or paid rent, or settled outstanding bills. Yet, she does not have the heart to say no, and soon risks being worse off than ever, for not only would she be forced to return to her former debasements, but she would have squandered her "gift from the gods." Wang begs the gods to protect Shen Te, but they demur, for surely it makes people stronger to solve their own problems and Shen Te's goodness will prevail. In desperation, Shen Te disguises herself as a male "cousin" called Shui Ta, who is all business with the spine to turn out those taking advantage of Shen Te's good heart.

Shen Te falls in love with Yang Sun, an unemployed pilot who manipulates her feelings to get the money he needs for a pilot's license and move to Peking. She again takes on the guise of Shui Ta to intervene against her own heart. Shui Ta converts the shop into a tobacco factory in which he puts those who schemed against Shen Te to work, including Yang Sun. People begin to suspect stern and scrupulous Shui Ta of keeping kind and generous Shen Te locked away. It all ends up being taken to court, where the ruling does nothing to resolve the basic dilemma, which is the impossibility of maintaining goodness in a world that eats the good alive.

Wendy Knox directs the production like a circus ringmaster, with action and color in every corner the eye beholds. Her inspired design team—Joe Stanley did the scenery, Kathy Kohl the costumes, and Mike Wangen the lighting—work wonders. The former Rainbow receiving area offers a wonderful collection of platforms, upper level hatchways, and a large circular porthole (perhaps once a ventilation duct) on which the performers can perch, or pop in and out. A couple of framed doors wheeled in and out on cue provide entrances to the various shops and residences, with benches, tables, and the tobacconist's shelves moved about as needed. The costumes are a riot of color, a motley mix of patterns and styles, wacky hairdos and exaggerated makeup, a cross between Dr. Seuss and Federico Fellini. With all of this stimulation, the lighting shifts, along with Knox's precise staging, always tell us just where to look.

Emily Grodzik is wonderful as both good-hearted to a fault Shen Te and her counterpart, hard-lined cousin Shui Ta. She conveys the disruption to her sense of self as she flips between the two. Among the other actors, John Middleton is a gloriously vain, conniving pilot, Patrick Bailey conveys the compassion and inner goodness of water seller Wang, and Virginia S. Burke is hilarious as the slithery landlady who leans whichever way the wind is blowing, and as Yang Sun's opportunistic mother. Kirby Bennett is dandy as Mrs. Shin, former proprietor of the tobacco shop with the keen eyes to discern all that is going on. As the three gods, Katherine Ferrand, Janis Hardy, and Ellen Apel are a delightful chorus of nit-picky arguments over the best way to protect "goodness" from greed and corruption, things they know nothing about. The remainder of the cast are all wonderful in a range of roles, each bringing conviction to their part in unspooling the story of a would-be good person.

As in most of his plays, Brecht inserted songs, which stand apart from the narrative to allow a character to provide his or her perspective on the proceedings. These are performed with élan, especially the uproarious bridegroom song performed by John Middleton. Dan Dukich composed the music for the songs, as well as transitional music and all sound design, which makes the production sound as good as it looks—which is to say, smashing.

Frank Theatre puts on only a few shows each year, but whatever they do is generally worth sitting up and taking notice. The Good Person of Setzuan is no exception, laden with heart, humor, insight and imagination. It also leaves us with much to think about. In these wrenching times, we could certainly use both the generous goodness of a Shen Te and the fair but firm hand of Shui Ta. Perhaps the gods are watching to see who we come up with.

The Good Person of Setzuan continues through November 20, 2016, at the vacant Rainbow Foods site at 2919 26th Avenue S., near Hiawatha Avenue and Lake Street in Minneapolis. Tickets: $25.00, $22.00 for students and seniors. For tickets call 612-724-3760 or go to franktheatre.org

Written by Bertolt Brecht, translation by Wendy Arons, Adapted by Tony Kushner; Director: Wendy Knox; Set Design: Joe Stanley; Costumes: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Music Composition and Sound Designer: Dan Dukich; Properties Design and Lobby Installation: Kellie Larson; Vocal Coaching: Melissa Hart; Stage Manager: Glenn Klapperich;

Cast: Ellen Apel (Third God), Patrick Bailey (Water Seller), Kate Beahen (Wife/Prostitute), Kirby Bennett (Mrs. Shin), Alicia Briton (Old Woman/Prostitute), Virginia S. Burke (Landlady Mi Tzu/Yang Sun's Mother), Leah Eckardt (Nephew/Young Prostitute/ensemble), Katherine Ferrand (First God), Emily Grodzik (Shen Te/Shui Ta), Janis Hardy (Second God), Bethany McHugh (Sister-in-Law/ensemble), Kevin McLaughlin (Grandfather/Policeman/ensemble), John Middleton (Pilot Yang Sun/ensemble), Joseph Miller (Husband/Bonze/ensemble), Adam Rouser (Unemployed Man/ensemble), Adan Varela (Barber Shu Fu), Logan Verdoorn (Carpenter/Old Man/ensemble).


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