Bertolt Brecht’s “Good Person of Setzuan,” now playing through Saturday, November 20, in McCarter’s Berlind Theater, doesn’t have an ending. It just stops, torn off in a flash. The audience is left to work out what might happen after relishing this fast-moving spectacle of spirited pessimism.
Director Mark Nelson’s vision of Brecht’s dystopia evokes both chuckles and despair. The original music by graduate fellow Gilad Cohen underscores the unsolvable dilemmas of this tongue-in-cheek morality play. Fifteen Princeton students, six of them certificate students in the Lewis Center’s Program in Theater, vividly portray various mixes of greed, corruption and poverty.
Tony Kushner’s adaptation of the play was used. The newly composed music by Gilad Cohen overflows from the instrumental ghetto in a corner of the stage into the dramatic action. At intermission the band continues to play. Sometimes the music is unobtrusive; sometimes, compelling. It is lean, purposeful, and transparent. All the notes are there, and no sound seems superfluous. The excellent instrumentalists are composer Cohen, guitar and melodica; Lilia Xie, flute; Cameron Britt, percussion; and David Lackey, double bass.
At the opening of the play Wang, the Water-seller (Gary M. Fox), welcomes three gods who visit impoverished Setzuan in their search for a good person. Fox’s Wang is a warm and friendly guide, open and somewhat naive. He observes, with amazement, that the gods are well-fed and don’t seem to do any work. Wang, by the way, cheats his customers.
The gods, a well-cast cohort of two noticeably tall men (Gabriel D. Crouse and Ankur Rathee) and one diminutive woman (Elizabeth Wagner) wear impeccable garments, presumably made of expensive silk. Costume designer Catherine Cann creates a chasm between the fine clothing of the gods and the drab, often tattered, garments of the Setzuanese. By clothing some of the cast in vaguely Chinese outfits, and others in contemporary street-person togs, Cann supports the playful sense of unreality of this production.
Wang, after several failed attempts to find a place for the gods to spend the night, discovers that Shen Te (Jenna Devine), a good-hearted prostitute, will house them. Although they are not permitted to reward Shen Te for her kindness, the gods find a loop-hole and compensate her for their lodging. Hardly anyone is not deceitful in this astringent play.
With the money from the gods, Shen Te sets up a small tobacco shop. Word of her generosity spreads and the shop is overrun by greedy, self-centered townsfolk who take advantage of her charity. Shen Te’s supposed cousin, Shui Ta (the masked Shen Te, wearing men’s clothing) restores order to the shop. Stepping deftly on both sides of the male/female boundary, Devine is either all heart as Shen Te or all business enterprise as Shui Ta. Shui Ta knows that you can’t run a welfare program if you don’t have the funding. He transforms the tobacco shop into a thriving tobacco factory that employs the community.
Shen Te has fallen in love with the planeless airplane pilot Yang Sun (Jeffrey Kuperman). Pregnant with his child, she is unable to fall out of love with him, even though she knows that he is unworthy and cares only for himself. Kuperman’s Yang Sun overflows with charisma. His clear, brisk delivery of rap songs is irresistible. He enhances Yang Sun’s charm with convincing virtuoso gymnastics. Kuperman is responsible for the show’s choreography.
Shui Ta is tried for the disappearance of Shen Te. Various witnesses attest to his good character. The gods are the judges. Shui Ta unmasks himself before the gods and reveals that he and Shen Te are one and the same person.
All the performers contributed enthusiastically to the production, as they allow themselves to sink into a mock-Chinese atmosphere. Extensive bowing and widespread pigtails help set the mythical location. The prevalence of blonde pigtails helps sustain the mood of unreality. Outstanding among the cast is the comic and corrupt Policeman (Sebastian A. Franco).
The stark sets are designed by Bill Clarke. The singularly appropriate lighting design is the work of Beverly Emmons.
This romp of a theatrical evening provides serious ideas wrapped in effervescence. It furnishes meat for post-theater discussions. Any number of lines in the play can be a starting point. “How can I be good when everything’s so expensive?” Shen Te inquires, early in the play. “Good deeds destroyed her,” the hard-hearted Shui Ta says about the soft-hearted Shen Te. “I need my cousin,” a distraught Shen Te tells herself when she cannot manage her life. “If you like him [Shui Ta] you can’t love me,” Shen Te tells Yang Sun at their wedding.
“The Good Person of Setzuan,” Princeton University, Berlind at McCarter. Thursday through Saturday, November 18 to 20, 8 p.m. Adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play by Tony Kushner. Directed by Mark Nelson. Original music by Princeton graduate student Gilad Cohen. $15. 609-258-2787. www.princeton.edu/arts.