The Good Person of Setzuan – Ithaca College Department of Theater Arts 10/11

There’s something inescapably magical about live theater. It’s a rare sort of magic, which shows you how the trick is done and then makes you believe that it’s real anyway. Everybody should make it a point to go to the theater more often, small and intimate theaters if possible. The feeling of being swept away into a story as it comes to life – right there! so close you could touch it! – is intoxicating and delightful.

Okay, so let’s break it down: the experience, the play, the performance. Go.

The Experience:

The experience of the theater is a key component of the play. A film plays the same no matter where it’s shown. Theater is a collaboration between audience and performer, the mood of the room matters, the audience matters. A play is never exactly the same two performances in a row, that’s what makes it so much damn fun!

73323_photoOkay, now about ME! I went to Ithaca college way back in (a couple years ago) and I was delighted – absolutely delighted, I tell you! – when I was oh-so-generously given a pair of tickets to the show. What show? I didn’t know! Hm… The Good Person of Setzuan, you say? Fine, whatever.

First off, I fucked up completely, and went to the theater a week too early, only realizing my mistake halfway across the frickin’ campus (IC campus, by the way, is built like a StairMaster’s wet dream). So, I stick the tickets back in my pocket and take a stroll around the alma mater. It’s strange, and a bit disconcerting, going back to a place like that – a place that was so important and so formative – and finding that nothing has really changed. It’s all gone on without you.

Anyway! One week later, I arrive in style, ready to see some goddamn theater. I fuck up again, sitting in the wrong section, and am kindly escorted to the correct seat by a young man in a smashing vest. I settle in, and I look around me. The average age of the room is probably 95 years. I begin to worry that the play will be called on account of incontinence. The stage, wholly encircled by the audience, has been made up to look like some kind of circus or something, moody smoky lighting, brightly colored crate-things arranged in a circle, a stair of boxes leading to a be-curtained door, a rope-ladder hanging across the stage. “Ah,” I say aloud, in a moment of rare wit, “one of those British drawing room type plays.” A tart well into her dotage and reeking of Chanel #5 kindly informs me that, no, it actually takes place somewhere called Setzuan. Who knew?

The Play:

I’m gonna come out and say it: The Good Person of Szechwan is a shitty play.

Okay, maybe not. That’s too harsh.

I’m gonna come out and say it: The Good Person of Szechwan is a mediocre play.

Written in German I think by some guy named Bertolt Brecht back in the forties, and adapted by Tony Kushner for English-speaking louts such as you and I. That’s a sentence fragment. I’ll fix it later.

TGPoS, as I will definitely not be referring to it from now on, is a clunky slab of semi-comedic didacticism. Here’s how it goes: a bunch of gods are roving the earth in search of good folks. They find one, sort of: a prostitute (because it’s always got to be a prostitute, playwrights love ’em!) named Shen Te. They give her a bunch of money. She opens a shop, gives out rice to the poor, lets a family move in, yadda yadda. People take advantage of her, driving her right to the verge of going out of business. Because poor people are lazy assholes, and they’re only looking for a handout man. (We never see the poor whom she’s helping, only the poor who abuse her kindness, tellingly.) She adopts the guise of Shui Ta, a heartless and cold businessman who pursues success in a manner which can only be considered ruthless. He’s a marvelous success, because stern and cold is the way to go. Every time Shen Te goes back to being herself, people walk all over her, until she’s forced again to bring out Shui “John Galt” Ta.

Ad infinitum.

Finally, she’s forced to adopt the personal of Shui Ta for good, and people start to think that this guy has done away with Shen Te, but they’re mostly just jealous of his success and magnificence. The gods come down, and she explains the situation. How can a person be good, when everything is so very shit, and poor people are such fucking wankers? The whole cast now wags a solemn finger to the audience. As quoth the cheesy black-and-white educational filmstrip: “What would you do?”

This is a play tortured, warped through the lens of half-a-dozen clashing genres. Is it a moralist fable or a comedic farce? A musical? A drama? Is it tragic or funny or both? Is it three fucking hours long? If you answered all of the above, congratulations, you win!!! Lucky bastard! This is what it might look like if Baz Luhrmann adapted a Lar Von Trier movie after binging on Ayn Rand.

The elderly couple beside me were disappointed that they weren’t able to take a nap during the performance on account of it being too loud. “I prefer more traditional theater, Eugene!” she cawed, hobbling for the door.

The Performance:

But you know what? I had a great time. Sure I didn’t care about the bloated story and I couldn’t empathize with the archetypal characters and the old guy behind me wouldn’t stop kicking my chair and grunting, but I loved it anyway!

Wanna know why? That’s right, it was the performers! Oh, those plucky kids, they really pulled it off!

74058_photoThe cast was practically exploding with energy, bounding around the stage like maniacs, switching costumes and characters in plain sight, leaping into the audience, chatting away in character as the overwrought dramatic monologues receded into the background, whipping out instruments to provide their own musical score between scenes. You name it, they were doing it full on. A cell phone rang during the height of the drama, they rolled with it. An actor got a metal bucket kicked right in his face, they rolled with it. Somebody nearly smashed his face open on an old lady’s knee tripping over a prop, and they rolled with it. Brecht’s stuffy and airless pseudo-drama was transformed into a whirlwind of cotton-candy delight.

Kyra Leeds was great as the lead, though hers was something of a thankless role. Matt Ryan was hilarious, despite being saddled with the most distracting bald cap I’ve ever seen, and Evan Arbour was wonderful in his role as the pitiful water-seller. Everybody was good! That said, there was one show-stopping performance that topped all the others: Laura Brennan, as the landlady Mi Tzu, absolutely Lit. It. Up. She mugged, capered and pirouetted her way through stuffy expository dialogue with the force of a nuclear meltdown. Her scenes with Matt Ryan in particular were an absolute thrill of physical comedy.

The costumes were great, big and splashy and colorful, a sort of Burtonesque neon kabuki motley that very near seared the eyes to take in direct. The lighting was great, very atmospheric and dramatic. The staging was great, excellent use was made of the circular theater. It was all great. Except the play itself, of course, which was a bit naff.

Out into the cold, clutching my playbill, I couldn’t help but cast an eye over the year’s upcoming shows. Oh, what a visage of regret settled upon my less-than-illustrious brow at that moment! What dreck was this, what tired dreck!? Little Women? How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying? You Can’t Take it With You? Jesus fuck! Give the kids something to work with here! Who picks this crap? How about something written in the last century, pops? Is there no place for serious contemporary drama? You know, something to kick the establishment in the ass? This is why only old farts go to plays, they’re trying to relive their own distant childhoods! This is college here, this is your chance to break free, buck the system, cast off the shackles! Or… you could just preform a bunch of tired industrial age hooey.

Alright, I’m calling it: theater is dead. Theater departments killed it.

Still. Good show.

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