By Bertolt Brecht
Translated by David Harrower
Directed by Shade Murray
At Strawdog Theatre, Chicago
Epic Theatre is deftly presented by the ensemble of Strawdog Theatre
David Harrower’s translation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1943 parable, The Good Soul of Szechuan is a gritty work featuring crude humor and references to heroin sales and the low qualities of the human condition. Director Shade Murray and his cast of 18 players utilize Brecht’s epic theatre techniques that features pop/rock songs as actors play several roles, use bare staging with actors changing on stage. Add some over-the-top acting with screaming and the breakdown of the fourth wall and Brecht’s parable defining the “good” tendency of human nature can quickly become a tediously aggravating work. This worthy production isn’t for the faint of heart.
While the show runs 2 hours and 30 minutes and sure takes an adjustment in your theatrical expectations, once you ‘tune-in’ to what Murray and his talented cast are trying to do, you find a manic, creative, humorous and tuneful epic fable.
This parable (with music) follows a trio of gods (Adam Shalzi, Amy Dunlap and Anita Chandwaney) as they journey through Szechuan, China in search of one “good” person. Aided by Wang (Carmine Grisolia), a water carrier, the gods finally find a poor prostitute Shen-Te (Michaela Petro) who demonstrates her pure heart and charitable righteousness and is rewarded by the gods with wealth.
We witness Shen Te struggling to maintain her decency as a series of greedy relatives and neighbors descend upon her tobacco shop taking advantage of her basic goodness and trust. Greed, deception and fraud drive Shen Te to invent a male cousin, Shui Ta (also played by Michaela Petro) who is a tough capitalist businessman devoid of morality and conscious.
Through a series of actions by Shui Ta allows Brecht to explore whether in order to do good we, at times, must do evil. Brecht’s world is filled with immorality, especially in a capitalist system. He demonstrates that pure goodness may not be possible in a world filled with want and poverty.
The Strawdog Theatre production features terrific ensemble work and a fine understanding of Brecht’s dialectical theatre techniques. Mike Przygoda and Mikail Fiksel’s songs underscore the mood of the story deftly despite much of the lyrics being unintelligible. Among the top flight performances are Michaela Petro’s empathetic depiction of goodness as Shen Te that changes into a cold-heatred Shu Ta. Carmine Grisolis’s Wang and John Henry Robert’s Yang Sun were particularly strong.
If you love Bertolt Brecht’s plays and powerful ensemble theatre, than Strawdog’s The Good Soul of Szechuan is for you. Keep in mind that is unconventional theatre devoid of naturalistic elements. Epic theatre makes its own rules. In this production, they work to explore the morality and nature of human goodness. A provocative theatrical experience awaits.
At Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL, call 773-528-9696, tickets $20, www.strawdog.org, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 & 8 pm, Sundays at 7pm, special Monday industry performance on May 10 at 7 pm