Modulation wasn’t on Eric Ting’s agenda when he directed the actors in Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan (at Cal Shakes through July 28). With one or two exceptions, the cast was intent on subduing the audience by shouting out their lines. Midway through the second act, the rising clamor finally drowned out the meaning of Brecht’s language. Instead of nuanced readings of the script, Ting directed the actors to take a comic approach when they pronounced their characters’ Chinese names. Of all the things to draw our attention to, he decided that names like Shen Te, Lin To, and Mi Tzu had to be uttered, relentlessly, in quotation marks the size of elephant ears.
Early on, a supporting player holds up a cue card that reads, “Brecht never went to China.” Was this Ting’s way of wrestling ownership of the material from the powdery bones of a dead white man? For three hours, this production ignored the lyricism of the words themselves. Instead, the actors kept winking at us to let us know that a 20th-century German playwright had no right to appropriate a culture that wasn’t his own. That point could have been made once. After that, it felt like an artist’s grand condescension to a theater full of unschooled innocents going to a big city play for the first time.
This phonetic emphasis on nomenclature didn’t break Brecht’s famous fourth wall. It built one up, brick by noisily laid brick, imprisoning the material in a campy time warp. The diverse casting though was a welcome corrective to what, in 1943, must have originally been a group of Caucasian actors playing Chinese characters. Most of the actors appear in white face, another choice that influences the broad performances. They weren’t based on individual characters so much as turning individuals into caricatures. As Wang, the Water-Seller, Lance Gardner, sporting a cone-shaped hat, called to mind a clown — a sad one, wigless and not really there to amuse. Phil Wong, in multiple roles, was also clown-like, especially as a plump barber rubbing his prosthetic belly. Overall, the makeup essentially transformed the cast into mimes. From one scene to the next, emotions were telegraphed to the audience as “emotions” — not simply acted.
It is possible for actors in a contemporary play to acknowledge the presence of an audience and to act in a fictional universe at the same time (e.g., plays by Julia Cho, Christopher Chen, etc.). But The Good Person works overtime to diminish the illusions taking place on stage. Cross-dressing is a crucial part of the plot. In the lead role of the good-hearted female sex worker named Shen Te, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie also dresses as a man. As Shui Ta, she adopts his more aggressive personality in order to protect her interests in a tobacco store. Additionally, three other actors appear in drag, but not because the plot demands it. They appear in ill-fitting dresses and their wigs are deliberately askew, which calls attention to the props and not the words that they’re saying. This is meant to serve as someone’s idea of fun. But the play contends with some very un-fun ideas such as poverty, joblessness, and the corrosive effects of capitalism. This is a candy-colored approach that would withstand, and be improved by, some illumination in lurid, worn-out hues.
There are gods in this place. When they walk on stage, they form and reform as trios of different actors. The scenic designer, Michael Locher, indicates their presence by flickering out one of the capital o’s in the Richard Serra-sized “GOOD” sign spelled out in the background. They’ve descended from the heavens to seek out and monitor the progress of one good person. Shen Te gives them shelter for a night in her shabby room and is then rewarded for her good deed. The story that follows depicts a society that artfully takes advantage of its most vulnerable members. It’s a forbidding, pitiless tale worthy of Fassbinder or even someone like Bertolt Brecht. Breaking the fourth wall isn’t the only theatrical device that qualifies as a Brechtian gesture. Reciting the rhythms of his scripts with recognizable emotions is another viable way of bringing the meaning of his language back to life.
The Good Person of Szechwan, through July 28, at California Shakespeare Theater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, $20-$94; 510-548-9666 or calshakes.org