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A dated drag

What’s not so good about Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Setzuan centers on the earnest message that even the noblest, most altruistic citizen cannot succeed within the oppressive structure of a fledgling capitalist city. Funny thing about that message—it ends up applying to the play, as well. Even the most gifted and creative talent in the University of Montana’s current production cannot rise above this dismally hollow drama.

Brecht is a pillar of theater. The German-born playwright and life-long Marxist re-imagined his craft between the 1920s and ’40s. He’s credited with scores of modern innovations, from breaking the fourth wall by having actors directly address the audience to showcasing the guts of the production by exposing lighting rigs and musicians. Considered the epitome of “epic theater,” Brecht’s style, also known as “Brechtian theater,” pulls together various dramaturgical devices for the purpose of expounding broad societal commentaries. It’s the sort of stuff that makes for fascinating term papers in Theater History 101. But as contemporary entertainment? That’s another story altogether.

The Good Person of Setzuan essentially acts as a three-hour economics lesson. Shen Te (Whitney Wakimoto), a prostitute struggling to make a living in the depressed town, is an angelic altruist. When three gods descend upon Setzuan looking desperately for one good person, they’re turned away repeatedly until Shen Te takes them in. Her profession doesn’t matter to the gods—they see her as the kind, generous, giving soul that she is, and end up giving her a sack of gold coins to jump-start her life. Shen Te immediately buys a tobacco shop and then confronts approximately 130 minutes of moral roulette. She’s hounded by old “friends” needing shelter, craftsmen needing overdue payments, the landlord needing assurances, cripples needing handouts, and so on. It’s enough to drive the well-meaning Shen Te mad. Instead, she simply creates an alter ego, Shui Ta (also Wakimoto), her iron-fisted, resolute businessman of a cousin. Shui Ta strives to restore order, maintain the status quo and thrive in this simple capitalistic town of haves and have-nots. All’s well and good until, like an episode of “Three’s Company,” Shen Te’s dual life starts to crack at the seams, mostly as a result of a misguided affair with a dubious pilot (Kurt Smith).

Simply put, Good Person takes the long route to explain that Shen Te can’t win. Nobody can. Throughout the play we’re reminded “the good can’t stay,” “this city is horrendous,” “the world can no longer go on as it is,” “there is something wrong with your world.” Enough already. The problem with all of Brecht’s lecturing—and, really, a side effect of the whole “Brechtian” approach—is that we’re never allowed to care about the characters. Everything seems to be intent on rushing through the story to get to the message. There’s no heart, no sentiment, no introspection. Pounding home the message is all that matters.

And that’s a shame considering some of the talent and creative techniques on display. Director Fulton Burns, a new drama faculty member, stages his debut in the Open Space, a cavernous rectangle of a room usually used for dance performances; the drama department hasn’t stepped foot in it for at least 20 years. Subtly, Burns uses the deep, expansive theater to his advantage, blocking entire scenes on moving stages, exposing everything in true Brechtian fashion and, although Dwayne Ague’s stage and lighting designs are barebones compared to larger UM shows, providing the appearance of a full-on production. In lesser hands the space could have been a detractor, but Burns makes it an asset.

Wakimoto does similarly heavy lifting in the lead role. If you’ve seen her work over the last two years you already know Wakimoto as one of the most seasoned, expressive and poised students in the drama program. Starting with her supporting role in Montana Rep Missoula’s Endgame and continuing with arresting turns last year in both Richard III and Big Love, Wakimoto has proven to be a star-in-the-making. In Good Person she hardly ever leaves the stage, effortlessly shifting back and forth from charitable do-gooder to steely dictator. She has the rare ability to be a commanding actor and human at alternate turns. But stricken with the task of preaching more than performing, even Wakimoto’s affecting presence gets lost in the constant hum of the messaging.

There are more bright spots—the gods provide some much needed humor, especially Seth Bowling, and the ending scene, once it mercifully arrives, sizzles—but not nearly enough. Long, transparent, one-dimensional and stale, The Good Person of Setzuan is no longer vital. Brecht is a dated drag. It hardly matters that Tony Kushner wrote this adaptation, and it wouldn’t matter if Susan Stroman was directing and Meryl Streep was starring. This play succeeds in cementing the belief that yes, it is hard to be good in a society that’s not good and yes, it is hard to be endearing in a play that’s not at all endearing. Brecht’s hope was that Good Person would help convince society to change and that capitalism would dissipate. My hope is that the play will.

The Good Person of Setzuan continues in the Open Space, downstairs at the University of Montana’s PARTV Center, every night through Saturday, Nov. 3, and Nov. 6 – 10, at 7:30 PM. $11/$10 students.

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