April 2–21, 2024

Review: The Good Person of Setzuan

April 10, 2024
Broad Street Review

The Wilma Theater presents Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Setzuan

Mina Reinckens
Apr 09, 2024
3 minute read

Upholding Brechtian alienation while inviting in Asian audiences: Bi Jean Ngo and the ensemble of the Wilma’s ‘Good Person of Setzuan’. (Photo by Johanna Austin.)

In director Justin Jain’s interpretation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Setzuan, now onstage at the Wilma in a musical production based on an adaptation by Tony Kushner, kindhearted protagonist Shen Te invents her cousin Shui Ta, a ruthless businessman alter-ego who takes charge when Shen Te’s generosity outpaces her ability to fulfill her promises. And running almost four hours (including a 15-minute intermission), this production is not for the faint of heart—and not just because of the dark subject matter.

After agreeing to shelter three gods for the night, sex worker Shen Te (Bi Jean Ngo) is gifted a large sum of money as a reward for proving her “goodness” to the deities who charge her to be good. She uses the funds to buy tobacco to open a shop and turn her life around, but her efforts to live virtuously and extend kindness to those around her (per the gods’ instructions) quickly spiral as she habitually promises more than she has to her impoverished neighbors.

Her “cousin” Shui Ta (also Bi Jean Ngo), however, is able to say no where the soft-spoken Shen Te cannot, and acts as a temporarily stabilizing force in her life and business. But tensions and suspicions mount the longer Shui Ta stays and Shen Te disappears, and the townspeople become increasingly displeased with his ruthless business-first attitude.

The balance of funny and bleak

This Good Person of Setzuan walks the difficult balance between funny and unflinchingly bleak. While I think the subject matter could have been covered in half the time, this is a thoughtful, intentional, and overall well-executed interpretation that is absolutely worth seeing. Ngo plays both the tender-hearted and somewhat-spineless Shen Te equally as well as she portrays Shui Ta’s righteous indignation at the believably sleazy Yang Sun (Makoto Hirano), while the entire cast’s ability to play multiple characters—sometimes in the same scene—is laudable. A discussion between two characters, both played by Melanye Finister, stands out in the way that it intentionally shatters suspension of disbelief, reminding us that we’re watching a play and making us laugh at the same time.

Now you’re speaking my language

The nebulous concept of “authenticity” is not a goal of this production—or, frankly, of the original. Jain’s setting is melting pot (or salad bowl?) of pan-Asian cultures, and deliberately eschews a singular language or culture. Shui Ta speaks a combination of Vietnamese and English; announcements and signs are written in Cantonese; Wang the water-seller (Jungwoong Kim) speaks Korean and is interpreted in English by those around him. However, while Wang is portrayed beautifully by Kim, the overlapping dialogue (Kim speaking in Hangul, a second actor often interpreting in English over him) can make it difficult to hear either speaker. There are additionally untranslated signs, announcements, and dialogue, playing into the Brechtian alienation of his (white, western) audience, while simultaneously inviting in Asian members of the audience.

One of my favorite touches was the decision to interpret the “gods” (Jered McLenigan, Ross Beschler, and Matteo Scammell) as obnoxious tourists dressed in whiteface, with loud shirts, sunglasses, a fanny pack, and exaggerated Californian accents. It’s played up for laughs while also serving as a multifaceted, pointed criticism of white tourists in Asia, western indifference and exotification, lack of accountability, and, of course, prompting the audience questioning the characters’ authority and legitimacy as “gods”. It’s an interesting and poignant reverse in a play that has too often been riddled with Orientalist and frankly racist portrayals of Asian characters by non-Asian actors.

Altogether, The Good Person of Setzuan is a thought-provoking and engaging performance, and I highly recommend getting tickets while they’re still available.