“The Good Person of Szechwan” Review – Cal Shakes Puts Bertolt Brecht to Song

"The Good Person of Szechwan"- Ensemble; Photo: Kevin Berne

Alice Chunyan Zhou and Henry Etzkowitz

To present a serious topic in a light-hearted way is a triumphant achievement of Cal Shakes!

Ensemble; Photo by Kevin Berne

“Does human nature respect good people? This is the question at the core of Bertoldt Brech’s The Good Person of Sczechwan.” [1]The author, Bertolt Brecht, contributes a universal story about being a whole human being. He was a German theatre practitioner, playwright, and poet, and wrote about an Eternal topic: how to be a human being!?

(L-R) Margo Hall, Francesca Fernandez Mckenzie, Lily Tung Crystal, Photo: Kevin Berne

This out door theatre is located in a small valley surrounded by tall trees and brown hills. Climb the Cal Shakes Orinda Heights location or take the shuttle, at least an hour in advance – it is always an extraordinary experience. Have a picnic, listen to the insights of the upcoming show and break the summer‘s quiet night!

We were very interested in the picnics of many other groups around us, even though this was not our first times as Shakers. The informal twenty-minute Grove session designed by Philippa Kelly provided insight into production and drama and was most helpful in understanding the play and was appreciated very much.

(L-R) Phil Wong, Francesca Fernandez Mckenzie, and J Jha; Photo: Kevin Berne

Bertold Brecht had never been to China, as a placard held up during the performance announces, taking Brecht’s convention of communicating directly with the audience a step further. But he had been to Los Angeles, and he was familiar with the work of Mei Lanfang, a Peking Opera star from the time when female roles were performed by men. Brecht may have been commenting on the excesses of American capitalism, with all altruistic human impulses subordinated to capital accumulation, but the stagers have given equal time to the excesses of Chinese communism, displaying a character in the dunce cap worn by persons reviled in Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution. Can the split between Communism and Capitalism ideology make persons mad? 

The stage with a huge “GOOD” as background tells the theme of the play.  The make-up, costumes, and props all show comedystyle, contrasting to the serious theme, forming the extraordinarystyle of the show, allowingthe discussionof serious topics more easily.Shen Te is portrayed as a perfect image of a good being, while others are portrayed as clownsor incomplete persons, highlightingthe good and the bad nature of human beings.

Ensemble; Photo by Kevin Berne

People have dual attributes, both natural and social. As a natural person, people must think for themselves in order to survive. However, as a person in society, they must know how to stand in the group, taking a moderate attitude to act. As an individual,onehas to takethe standardized criterion of good and evil, and can only do their best not to infringe others? Try to maximize your own interests such that youdon’t hurt others is the message of this musical melodrama.

Director, Eric Ting, added lots of China’s elements to the play, based on his understanding of traditional Chinese culture. For example, it is very impressive that Chinese music and arts appeared from time to time with Peking Opera music clips and props; “The East is Red”, pictures with Chinese old memory that included sound effects from various traditional Chinese instruments. Sometimes the actors sang songs with music played by plucked instruments, creating a special atmosphere on the open stage in the beautiful evening. Ulises Alcala has imaginatively costumed the three Gods Searching for a good person. They encounter Wang, The Water Seller, ably played by Lance Gardner, who assists them in their quest. The principal, dual natured and dual gendered Shen Te/Shui Ta is realized with verve and style by Francesca Fernandez McKenzie.

(foreground) Phil Wong, (Background L-R) J Jha, Dean Linnard, Lance Gardner; Photo: Kevin Berne

The stage lighting under the moonlight changes with the story, sometimes creating the romantic and warm atmosphere of Shen Te and Yang Sun together, the monotony of the tobacco factory work, as well as the anxiety when Sun and his mother are waiting for Shui Ta to arrive to give them money. All these are full of fun while, firmly grasping the hearts of the audience, so that the three-hour performance flew by. Though the drama has ended, the aftertaste remains much longer. Is humanity good or evil? Should a person choose good or evil in the society? In the end, Cal Shakes imaginatively conceived “Good Person” gives the audience a way to think about these issues by teasing out and highlighting the ambiguities inherent in Brecht’s dichotomies.  

This is wonderfully presented and very enjoyable.  For more information go to the Cal Shakes website


[1]See  https://calshakes.org/ask-philippa-good-person-edition/

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