April 2–21, 2024

Review: The Good Person of Setzuan

April 10, 2024
Zoe Writes Theatre

(Photo credit to Johanna Austin)

Okay, I will definitely be the first person to tell you that Bertolt Brecht is hard.

He’s definitely one of the great playwrights.  Anyone who has studied his works can tell you that.  But he’s deep, and he’s heavy, and he’s hard to read and watch.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to take from his works, but he’s still hard.  But the thing is, in this modern age, there are ways to handle Brecht in a way that makes his shows a lot easier to swallow.  And The Wilma Theater’s production of The Good Person of Setzuan has done just that.  Working with a script adapted by Tony Kushner (of Angels in America fame), The Wilma has brought Brecht into a more modern age, and made a hard play…maybe not so hard.

I was maybe a little anxious going in.  I had some idea of the script, though it had been a long time since I read it.  And the fact that the play is three hours and forty-five minutes is a little scary.  But I was also excited.  This is a play that’s been produced thousands of times, and I knew I’d be seeing a very different version…I’d been promised this.  I’ve seen a lot of shows at The Wilma, and I know they do good work…and sometimes very edgy work.  I had faith.

From the start of the show, I started to realize just how different this production was going to be.  They handled things differently.  Wong, the water seller, spoke no English (the actor is actually Korean, and was speaking Korean).  Instead, another actor working around the outskirts of the stage, spoke the English translation to Wong’s words.  It was really stunningly done, hearing the two different languages overlap like that.  Already, it seemed like a start to a new imagining of the show.  And as things progressed, we could see that more and more.  The Gods (important characters, of course) were first presented as tourists in Setzuan.  Their over the top performance clearly painted the picture.

Let me be candid here.  I loved every second of this show.  Justin Jain, the director, showed pure mastery when it came to The Good Person of Setzuan.  Everything was crafted to compliment everything else- the sets, the costumes, the acting, all of it.  I feel like we got a little bit of everything while we watched this show.  From Wong’s translator, to songs, to various languages.  Bi Jean Ngo, the star of the show, was spellbinding on her own, but shined even brighter with her ensemble of other actors.

This show was not your standard Brecht (though I must admit, the only other Brecht show I’ve actually seen was The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which was a million years ago).  But I felt so much more watching The Good Person of Setzuan.  Even though it was structured like I would imagine the play always would be, I felt like I was really relating to everyone.  And if not relating, I understood everyone’s intentions.  The actor’s performances really brought it home for me.

We had some super cool moments in this show.  The Gods, who turned into “surfer bro” archetypes, would often pop out of nowhere…including in the aisles of the theatre.  The audience was brought into the narrative at one point…in the scene in the tobacco factory, some rows got props passed down the row, tobacco leaves to cigars on a rope.  Our row was one of those rows, which was awesome!  We got to see the transition of Shen Te to Shui Ta, which was simple, but really beautiful in its simplicity.  They used dummies and mannequins to stand in as characters.  The whole show was just bursting with creativity.  I think the way we watched The Good Person of Setzuan was like it has never been watched before.

There’s so much to learn from this show.  There are so many life lessons.  We see the Gods, and we see their arrogance.  And they are extremely arrogant.  We see that the more you give, the more you take…the conundrum of being a good person.  And as a good person, where do you draw the line between giving and giving to others and watching out for yourself?  The lessons of the show are still there, even if we’re seeing a whole new imagining.

We were at the show on opening night, which meant we got to talk with a lot of people that we wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise, which was super cool.  One thing that really struck me from what everyone said…both cast and crew…was that there was so much passion that went into this show.  Everyone put everything into it, their hearts, their souls, their lives.  Their passion, and their love, was apparent in every moment of the show, both onstage and knowing what went into The Good Person of Setzuan.  This was pure love.

It’s a little devastating to me that this show doesn’t have that long a run.  Especially with the intensity of it all.  I seriously want to tell everyone that they have to experience The Good Person of Setzuan.  Hell, if I got the chance, I would want to see it again.  But I am grateful I got this experience.  I wish I could just thank everyone involved.  This was a dynamic show, and I know its mark won’t fade too quickly.