Periodically tweaked, Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Person of Setzuan” has remained fresh and provocative for almost 70 years. The Princeton Program in Theater divulges its take on the spritely parable in performances at McCarter’s Berlind Theater Friday, November 12, through Saturday, November 20.
Political activist Brecht began work on the piece in 1938 in Berlin and completed it in the United States in 1943 after fleeing Nazi Germany. The first performance took place in Zurich, Switzerland. Several English adaptations of the piece exist, and a succession of composers has written music for the piece during its long theatrical history.
Director of the Princeton performances is Mark Nelson, Princeton Class of 1977, now a visiting lecturer at the university. The music is composed by Gilad Cohen, a Princeton graduate fellow in composition. Performers and musicians are Princeton University students.
The company uses the adaptation of the work by Tony Kushner, author of “Angels in America.” The production was commissioned by Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts.
Michael Cadden, director of the Lewis Center’s Program in Theater, was instrumental in making the production a reality. “I began teaching and directing at Princeton last fall,” writes the show’s director, Mark Nelson, in an E-mail. “When Professor Cadden invited me back to direct this year’s fall show, I mentioned four or five of my favorite plays, including ‘Setzuan.’ By the next day he had secured the rights from Tony Kushner to produce his adaptation and that made the decision. Besides the fact that it’s beautiful theater, it also asks the questions we need to ask now. Our historic moment — the economy, the call for tax cuts for the richest two perecent while millions go jobless, the spreading retreat from idealism — echoes in this play from 1943.”
Cadden calls the piece “Brecht’s newly relevant tale of the struggle between self-interest and a sense of community.”
In “The Good Person of Setzuan” three gods come to earth, searching for a good person. Shen Te, a poor, young prostitute, shelters them for the night, and the grateful gods give her money with which she sets up a small tobacco shop. Her generosity becomes known and the homeless overrun her shop.
One day visitors to the shop are met by Shui Ta, who explains that his cousin, Shen Te, has been called out of town. He turns the crowds away and restores order in the shop. In reality, Shui Ta is Shen Te in disguise.
As the generous Shen Te becomes overwhelmed by demands on her charity, she is absent from the shop more and more. In her absence the supposed Shui Ta becomes more and more present and converts the shop into a successful tobacco factory.
For all practical purposes, Shen Te disappears. Townspeople discover a bundle of Shen Te’s clothing under Shui Ta’s desk, and Shui Ta must stand trial. The judges are the gods. Shui Ta reveals her identity as Shen Te. The playwright asks the audience to solve the problem of how a good person can manage in an evil world.
As a Princeton undergraduate, Nelson acted in a Brecht play at Theatre Intime on campus in 1975. “It got me hooked on acting (I still am),” he says. “It gave me my family of friends (they still are); and it made my head pound with troubling questions (it still does). We believed, with the brand of missionary zeal known only to college students of the ’70s, that theater could re-make the world. It didn’t, needless to say, but it re-made us.
“I chose Brecht again, in hopes of introducing my students to the shared exuberance and ardor we had been granted all those years ago. I hope we can convey not just Brecht’s message but his swarming vitality, his bracing laughter, and his prayer for justice.”
Nelson decided on new music for the new production. “I knew right away that I wanted live music,” he says, “and lots of it — not just the songs Brecht includes. Some of the speeches could be sung, and many of the scenes could be underscored by music. That meant finding a new composer.”
Princeton professor Paul Lansky brought director Nelson together with composer Gilad Cohen. “I wrote to Professor Lansky at the Princeton music department,” Nelson remembers, “and he said he had a graduate student who could compose a theater score and perform it, too. Gilad sent me the link to his website, and that night I heard 10 recordings of his work: klezmer dance music, a string quartet, liturgical chant, even a comedy song in five-part harmony making fun of his Israeli accent. I loved the music, and I knew the extreme range of his talent meant he could capture any mood the play required.”
Cohen says, “I squeezed in a meeting with Mark in June, before I went to Israel for two months.” They agreed that Cohen would write the music and serve as musical director. In performance, Cohen also appears on stage. He worked on the project during his stay in Israel.
Looking back to the summer, Nelson says, “Collaborating with Gilad has been one of the big treats of this job; he’s allowed me to be a partner in his process. All summer he’d send me mp3’s of the music from Israel, and I’d write back saying ‘No, it’s angrier,’ or ‘more ironic’ or ‘you missed the joke in this lyric,’ and he’d send back something new.”
Cohen, in Israel, was wrestling with technical musical issues in addition to responding to Nelson’s feedback. “One dilemma was: How Chinese should the music be?” he says. “A lot of factors were involved: instrumentation, scales, melodies. Mark wanted a combination of Chinese music and other musics. I was trying to use pentatonic scales but not sound too Chinese. The blues came out. That’s what I’m used to. The Kushner text was a consideration in writing the music because the dialogue is contemporary American speech.”
The non-Chinese music components are mostly jazzy, rocky, and folky,” Cohen says. “The music is not too polished. For the stage music I tried to imagine the real sound you would hear in a poor district in Setzuan.”
Cohen’s four-member band for the production consists of guitar, percussion, flute, and double bass. “Sometimes the band is on stage, sometimes not,” he says. “Sometimes I participate as a singer or instrumentalist on stage. In one scene I am one of the homeless people in the tobacco shop.”
The play opens musically with the motif of Shen Te. “She is a simple, artless, innocent, poor girl from a poor town,” Cohen says. “Her theme basically consists of three descending quarter notes: G, E, and D.”
“I asked myself, ‘How can I make this motif rough and belligerent to represent Shui Ta, the invented cousin?” Cohen says. “I ended up using E-flat instead of E. It’s a variant of the Shen Te theme. They’re two sides of the same coin.
“After beginning with the motifs of Shen Te and Shui Ta the music moves quickly to other material,” Cohen says. “At the end, the flute plays sequences based on the original Shen Te motif against driving rocky music. The ending is not at all Chinese; it’s funky.
“The other characters are less naive than Shen Te and Shui Ta,” continues Cohen. “Mark wanted happy music for them. But he wanted to show that in every happy section there is something off, something not quite right. I indicated this by subtle shifts in the harmony.” Cohen illustrates with an example on his guitar where the bass line veers off from an expected quiet ending into a dissonant surprise.
Cohen was born in Israel in 1980, three years after director Nelson graduated from Princeton. His father was a software designer for the Bank of Israel whose job was to devise ways to break into the computer systems of the bank in order to test security levels. His mother was a librarian for the Israeli Department of Education. Gilad is the youngest of three brothers.
After a failed three-month start at piano at age six, he returned to study with the same teacher at age 10, when he was ready to practice. At 15, he turned to guitar and bass guitar. “Much as I liked playing, I liked composing better because I thought it was more creative,” he says. Cohen earned a bachelor’s degree in composition from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance in 2004.
In 2006 came the transition to the United States where Cohen earned a master’s degree in composition from New York’s Mannes College of Music in 2008. “It was hard,” he says. “Luckily, my brother, Yuval, who’s a jazz and classical pianist, was in New York and so was my best friend. The rest of my friends and family were in Israel. It was difficult socially. I started dating in English for the first time in my life.” Those dates led Cohen to write a musical based on conflicts between Israelis and New York Jews. Excerpts from the work, “Sea of Meshuganas” [Sea of Crazy People] were included in a November 9 performance at Taplin Auditorium on the Princeton campus.
“I discovered musicals when I came to New York,” Cohen says. “I love music for theater and wrote for theater in Israel, but those plays were not musicals. In fact, ‘The Good Person of Setzuan’ is not a musical. In a musical, the music is central; there may be 20 pieces. In ‘Good Person’ there are only seven pieces.
“Writing concert music, as opposed to writing for theater, is a lonely proposition,” Cohen says. “With a theater piece, it’s not lonely; others are involved. There are the director and the cast. I like making changes as rehearsals unfold.”
Cohen has found a model to his taste with Nelson’s production of “The Good Person of Setzuan.” “It’s a pleasure to collaborate with a professional director who is very sensitive to music, knows what he’s looking for, but is still open to trying new ideas and is not afraid of challenging and complicated music. And there’s the all-professional creative team, including the wonderful stage manager from Lewis Center for the Arts, Carmelita Becnel.
“Maybe most important is the cast,” says Cohen. “They put so much effort into the show with their enthusiasm and high spirits. That’s what I love the most about working in theater — and what makes me happy and excited every time I enter the rehearsal room.”
“The Good Person of Setzuan,” Princeton University, Berlind at McCarter Theater. Friday, November 12, though Saturday, November 20, 8 p.m. Adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play by Tony Kushner. Directed by Mark Nelson, Class of 1977. Original music by Princeton graduate student in composition Gilad Cohen. 609-258-2787 or www.princeton.edu/arts.