Saturday, October 29, 2016

An Impossible Situation

"The Good Person of Setzuan,” by Bertolt Brecht.  Frank Theatre Premiere, October 28, 2016  (Directed by Wendy Knox, adapted by Tony Kushner)

This is a long, somewhat archaic play that actually speaks directly to the present.  It deals with the structure of a world presided over by ‘gods’ who want humans to do ‘good’ -  yet a world in which it is impossible to survive while at the same time doing ‘good.’  Getting money is the catch and the play’s constant theme, which is why the play is still relevant.  Given that we have to go back to a play written by a German Communist in the late 1930’s to talk clearly about how economics affects people shows the sad state of present theater. 
The Water Seller and Shen Te
As Erik Wright said in his book ‘Understanding Class’ about game theory, Marxists deal with ‘systemic power’ – i.e. ‘what game should be played.’  They do not just deal with the accepted institutional ‘rules of a given game’ or the even more low-level situational ‘moves within the fixed set of rules.’  The game itself is the issue and this is Brecht’s ultimate point.  What game do you want to play?   

The play was staged in the empty Rainbow Foods building on Lake Street in Minneapolis.  This was a large store bought by a competitor that owned a Cub grocery across the street, then closed it intentionally in order to drive more business to Cub.  The union workers at Rainbow were laid-off in the process.  Frank has staged the resulting large empty space as a homeless encampment – tents, mattresses, sleeping bags, junk, shopping carts… perhaps a sly commentary on that act.  You walk through this on your way to the play’s real site – the loading dock/shipping and receiving area in the far back of the store.  The loading dock has stairways, a huge fan hole, the dock doors and upstairs rooms, which all serve as the set.  Frank in the past was known for this kind of industrial staging, especially with plays dealing with poverty or hard politics.

Poverty is the norm in Setzuan (the original German spelling).  Shen Te is a young prostitute who shows hospitality to 3 gods by housing them for one night, and is given silver dollars in return.  Previously she had to sell her body in order to survive, though she knew it was wrong and optimistically hopes to make a change for the better.  Shen Te takes the money and rents a store, stocking it with tobacco.  However a horde of homeless relatives show up, who take things, thieve up the street and threaten her new livelihood.  The former owner has unpaid bills to a carpenter she had not told Shen Te about and he comes demanding payment.  Her new rich landlord lady knocks and demands 6 months rent up front.  Shen Te gives money to a young man she has fallen in love with, Yang Sun, money she borrowed from neighbors so he can be a pilot in Peking.  She gives out rice to the homeless.  She says she will testify to the police for Wang, the water-seller, who has been injured by the rich barber. She buys water from the water-seller on a rainy day.  She makes a deal with the barber to house her homeless relatives in his unused buildings, almost promising to marry him in the process.  The neighborhood loves her for these acts.

However, all this ‘giving’ makes it impossible to survive running the store, so she dresses up and pretends to be a penny-pinching and hardened male cousin, Shui Ta, to save the business. Through this device, the store begins to turn a profit by ending the charity process, and instead Shui Ta plays financial hardball.  Shui Ta ultimately appropriates some tobacco bales and starts a tobacco factory, employing the relatives and others, including Yang, her ‘lover’, and becomes a successful business person in Setzuan – the ‘king’ of tobacco.  Through this dual-identity device the play becomes a reflection of the battle between altruism and exploitation, between love and economic survival, between capital and something else, playing out internally.

In this play, Brecht is saying that capitalism and mercantile trading economies ultimately shape the psychological and social characteristics of the people in the ‘game,’ no matter what the individuals want.  Implicitly, everyone in society has dirty hands and cannot be completely ‘good.’  Even Frank Theatre accepts corporate donations, as they themselves point out. The real issue then becomes the degree of dirt. The water-seller, Wang, is the only person who exploits no one, but lives in rags with a damaged hand, though some say the water he sells is tainted…   

At the end of the play, after the dual identities are revealed, the cast asks the audience to solve this contradiction. Brecht is obviously hoping audience members will think that perhaps the ‘game’ is the wrong game and that a society not based on money might be a better alternative.  Unfortunately for most, the audience will perhaps leaven their money-consciousness with a bit more kindness, but leave the game unchanged.

This was a premiere and still a bit rough, but that is normal.  The play has well-sung songs as do most Brecht plays, some modern, but the words were difficult to understand.  One of the best scenes, reminiscent of the play “Oil and The Jungle,” was the song the workers sing while handling tobacco.  The humor is intermittent, the actors serviceable, the setting familiar to anyone who has worked in shipping, but perhaps exotic for others.

The play will run for the next 4 weeks.

Prior reviews of Frank plays:  Love and Information” and “Things of Dry Hours.”  A U of M play, “Oil and The Jungle,” reviewed below, as well as the book “Understanding Class,” both referenced here.  Use blog search box, upper left. 

Red Frog
October 29, 2016

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