Charity vs. commerce

Good Woman critiques capitalism, but remains entertaining

Bertolt Brecht’s play focuses on the plight of young Shen Te.
Bertolt Brecht’s play focuses on the plight of young Shen Te.
Credit: 
Tim Fort

Theatre Review: The Good Woman of Setzuan @ The Rotunda Theatre, Nov. 9 to 18

It’s rare to find a play that intellectually stimulates and entertains the audience. It’s even more rare when this play happens to be a Bertolt Brecht text.

In this regard, the Queen’s drama department has produced an uncommon success. With their latest fall major, the drama department has chosen to delve into the extensive text of Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan. Brecht began writing the play in the 1920s, but didn’t complete the final script until 1941. Loaded with premonition, philosophical inquiry, and occasional verbosity, Brecht’s script demands an epic setting— a requirement that is blatantly ignored in this production. What’s more, it actually works. The play centers itself around one conflict: humanity’s struggle to remain ethical while working within the structures of a capitalist society.

Focusing on the plight of young Shen Te (played with delicacy and innocence by a commendable Aimee Roy), the story examines the consequences of financial gain in a “good” person’s life. As a reward for an act of hospitality, three wandering deities give Shen Te a modest tobacco shop to test her goodwill. Finding herself with newfound wealth and a means to express her inherent charity, Shen Te quickly turns the shop into a sanctuary of generosity. Just as quickly, Shen Te’s kindness is manipulated by her surrounding community and she is forced to invent an alter ego—her “cousin,” Shui Ta (Shen Te equipped with male clothing and a mask)—to bring order to the business. Where hen
Te is stereotypically vulnerable and compassionate, Shui Ta is relentless, powerful, and pragmatic. apitalist greed and confrontation follow. Brecht’s statement on the impossibility of innocent success in a capitalist world resonates throughout the rest of the plot, leaving high and mighty capitalists trembling in their leather clogs. Under the direction of Greg Wanless, the production undoubtedly grasps this concept and wastes no opportunity to communicate it to the audience.

Through every aspect of its presentation, the play is mindful of its fabricated nature and forces this knowledge onto the viewer. The Good Woman of Setzuan is staged in a theatre-in-the-triangle arrangement: there are no realistic entrances or exits and no attempt at natural scenery. With pectators on all three sides of the playing space, audience members are forced to be aware of each other and themselves. This is one of the many tactics used in the production to achieve its elfreferential aims. The spare set consists only of a tattered rag hung as a curtain, miniature tables, and a couple of wooden blocks. To signify changes in setting, title cards are posted on the central curtain. Yet where this minimalist set purposely lacks indication of scenery, the inventive lighting establishes mood and tone.

With so little emphasis on the stage, it’s obvious that much significance was invested in the costume design. There is an evident theme of transparency in the wardrobe, with much of the cast wearing similarly battered attire to achieve a sense of uniformity. Each outfit also boasts the respective character’s name across a noticeable area of the dress. With these two techniques, the costume designer draws our attention away from the actor’s role and forces us to see the actor beneath, continually reminding us that this is a performance. Wanless doesn’t stop there in trying to abolish any emotional engagement the audience has with the characters. When taking your seats before the show, don’t be surprised if the majority of the cast is mingling with the audience, in full costume, chatting with strangers about the show, the weather or the episode of Grey’s Anatomy that they’re missing.

While they are trying to achieve a personal atmosphere where the audience can recognize the actors as real people in performance rather than as characters, the result is an awkward, forced attempt at
socializing that makes some of the actors look like desperate singles at a martini bar. The tactic does reate a more personal atmosphere with the performers, but the actors don’t seem comfortable, rendering it less effective than the production’s other techniques of highlighting the division between actor and character. Despite this burden, the 22- person cast overcomes potential pitfalls and works together relatively well, with several actors deserving special mention: the Three Gods (played by Lesley Roberston, Allie Dunbar and Marni Van Dyk) have an entertaining chemistry that warrants a laugh whenever they weave into the play; Matthew Donovon provides one of the strongest performances as Mr. Shu Fu, undoubtedly the funniest character in the show; and Paul D’Alessandro is also solid as the earnest and well-meaning Wong. Overall, the play is successful in what it attempts to create: a theatrical experience that provokes the audience out of idle indifference to consider socio-economic change, while still providing an entertaining evening. This is by no means the epic that some understand the play to be, but it’s still a funny, stimulating illustration of theatre providing critical social comment.

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