Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Good Person of Szechwan
Ten Thousand Things Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Sun Mee Chomet and Joy Dolo
Photo by Paula Keller
Some twenty-nine years ago Michelle Hensley was a Master's Degree holding theater director in California, feeling disheartened that most theater seemed geared to and attended by affluent white audiences, and that most directors and other leadership roles in theater were held by men. Hensley set out to do something about that, conjuring a new form of theater, taking great works and paring them down to the core messages, presented by a small troupe of extremely talented actors able to each play multiple roles. These productions would be accessible—in terms of location, cost, format, message, and an informal relationship between the actors and the audience.

For her first foray into this experiment, Hensley chose Bertolt Brecht's great The Good Person of Szechwan. Its examination of whether it is possible to be "good" in a world where evil seemed always to prevail, presented with equal portions of comic and heartfelt characters and situations, struck a chord with its first audience, denizens of a homeless shelter in a southern California beachfront community. Hensley's mold-breaking career was off and running.

In the twenty-nine years since, Hensley relocated to Minnesota, developed her concept, and founded Ten Thousand Things Theater to deliver it, earning praise, awards, and serving as a model for similar companies around the nation. In 2014 Hensley's book "All the Lights On," about the gestation and evolution of her theater, was published. She received the 2017 Ivey Award for Lifetime Achievement. Now, on the eve of her retirement, her final directorial effort as Founding Artistic Director of Ten Thousand Things closes the circle, with a remount of The Good Person of Szechwan. The production is sparking with humor, drawing out Brecht's characteristic striking insights and enigmatic questions, delivered by some of the Twin Cities' finest acting talent (a hallmark of all TTT's work), and every bit as relevant in the current social-political climate as it was in 1989, after eight years of Ronald Reagan's White House.

Good Person of Szechwan is set in a mythical, fairytale-like China. Wang, the Water Seller, announces the arrival of three gods on a centuries-long quest to find at least one good person in all the world. Wang is certain that if he helps the gods in their mission there will be a reward for him, and tries to find someone to take the three travelers into their home, but door after door slams in Wang's face. As a last resort he turns to Shen Te. He knows Shen Te is not truly good, as she is a prostitute. Yet, it is Shen Te who comes through. The gods are relieved to have found a good person and richly reward her.

With gold in hand, Shen Te purchases a tobacco shop, resolved to earn an honest living and have enough to help others. Her penchant for helping others is her undoing, as Mrs. Shin (the shop's bankrupt former owner), Shen Te's first landlords and their slothful relatives, her landlord Mrs. Mi Tzu, a carpenter to whom Mrs. Shin owes money, and Yang Sun (a suicidal aviator) with whom Shen Te falls in love, all take advantage of her. An elderly couple who run a rug shop are kind to her within their limits. A barber becomes enamored with Shen Te, offering her security, but she is in the thrall of Yang Sun. To take charge and make things right, Shen Te invents a stern cousin, Mr. Shui Ta, who pushes back on all who are draining Shen Te dry. He looks after her from the perspective of a business-like mind, not her generous but undisciplined heart. Shen Te and Shui Ta are two sides of a coin, challenging the audience to consider whether kindness and common sense, or love and self-preservation, can co-exist. If one must choose, will kindness and love always be trod over by the forces of greed and exploitation?

Eight actors—the customary limit for a Ten Thousand Things cast—portray all these characters, along with several others, and all do fantastic work, using costume designer Trevor Bowen's ingeniously simple wardrobe elements, along with voice, posture and bearing, to distinguish among these. Joy Dolo, in the twin lead roles of Shen Te and Shui Ta, is wondrous. She conveys Shen Te's sincere intentions to do good in the world, and the growing sense of what a nigh impossible challenge that is, along with the ability to convince herself that love, even with a deeply flawed person who may not love her back, must be the road to happiness. When she transitions into Shui Ta, she is the soul of reason, bringing to life the thin line between reason and cruelty. Her Shen Te reveals the anguish she feels in her heart each time she must call Shui Ta back to assert his discipline.

Christine Baldwin, always captivating on stage, has a field day with rapid changes back and forth between two characters during the trial of Shui Ta (no hint here as to why he is on trial). Tyson Forbes as the aviator, and the only actor who plays only one role, is persuasive in his ability to pivot from desperation to deceit, with the matinee idol good looks to land Cupid's arrow in Shen Te's heart. Karen Weise-Thompson seemingly can't open her mouth without being funny as the barber and as one of those who show up to feast on Shen Te's good fortune. Sun Mee Chomet is delightfully wily as Mrs. Shin, and Elisa Langer creates a portrait of the earnest but simple water seller. As the three gods, Max Wojtanowicz, Sun Mee Chomet and Harry Waters Jr. are a delightful trio, each taking on a distinct personality and merrily playing off one another.

As usual for Ten Thousand Things, the set is very simple (they travel to twenty different performance sites) but ingenious, as designer Stephen Mohring has created just enough of a hint of each key location to enable the audience to keep track of the frequently shifting plot. Peter Vitale, the indispensable music and sound director of most Ten Thousand Things productions, provides peaceable Chinese-flavored underscoring, thunder, gentle rain, and a host of other sounds that complete the troupe's raft of storytelling. Of course, none of this would exist without the keen understanding both of the core to Brecht's play and the means to deliver theater straight to the heart devised by director Michelle Hensley.

I had the pleasure of watching this Good Person of Szechwan at Wayside House, a substance use rehab center for women in St. Louis Park. Most of the audience comprised residents at the center. Performed with all the lights on, the responses of audience members to the challenges facing Shen Te, the tough—and sometimes bad—decisions she makes, the guile of those who feign friendship or love to our hero perhaps striking a familiar chord for those looking on, are wondrous to see. It does not distract from the story playing out on the small stage, but ennobles it, raises it from entertainment (albeit, of high caliber) to a type of communion.

In fall 2016, Frank Theater staged a wonderful production of The Good Person of Szechwan, ingeniously mounted in an abandoned Rainbow Foods supermarket. As fine as that was, I encourage anyone who loves this play to make every effort to see Ten Thousand Things' production. For those who have not yet encountered the play, it is essential. It marks a return to the roots of its director and offers a sharply hewed, beautifully rendered narrative, with all of its heart and humor intact, of the struggle to parcel out goodness in a world gone awry. Who can resist rooting for Shen Te to hang on to whatever small goodness she has scraped out of that world?

The Good Person of Szechwan runs May 3, 2018 - May 6, 2018 and May 7, 2018 - May 27, 2018, at St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2742 15th Ave. S., Minneapolis, and May 10, 2018 - May 13, 2018 and May 31, 2018 - June 3, 2018 at The Open Book, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $30.00, Pay what you can, $10.00 minimum, for those under 30 with ID. For tickets call 612-203-9502 or go to Free tickets for all remaining community performances are sold out.

Playwright: Bertolt Brecht; Director: Michelle Hensley; Composer, Sound and Music Director: Peter Vitale; Costumes: Trevor Bowen; Sets: Stephen Mohring; Props: Abbee Warmboe; Production Manager: Nancy Waldoch; Assistant Director: Tracey Maloney; Production Intern: Silas Sellnow.

Cast: Christina Baldwin (unemployed woman/ Mi Tzu/niece/old woman), Sun Mee Chomet (third god/Mrs. Shin/nephew/prostitute), Joy Dolo (Shen Te/Mrs. Shui Ta), Tyson Forbes (Yang Sun the pilot), Elise Langer (Wang the water seller/carpenter/little cousin), Harry Waters Jr. (second god/ husband/old man/priest), Karen Wiese-Thompson (wife/Mr. Shu Fu the barber), Max Wojtanowicz (first god/brother/policeman/Mrs. Yang).