There are numerous variations on the title of Bertolt Brecht’s Der gute Mensch von Sezuan: The Good Woman of Setzuan; The Good Person of Setzuan; The Good Person of Szechuan; and Good Person of Szechwan, as it appears in the Foundry Theatre’s fantastic production running through Nov. 24 at Off Broadway's Public Theater. Or, as it will henceforth be known, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bertolt Brecht.
Director Lear deBessonet who put together a crazy-cool three-night musical version of The Tempest this summer in Central Park with a 200-member ensemble that included hip-hop-dancing teens, a church choir, a kids’ corps de ballet, Japanese drummers, and a Balkan brass band endows this Good Person with a similar carefree charm and beautiful, kooky sensibility.
The four-piece band featuring a suitcase full of ''found percussion'' is the first clue that you’re in for a rocking good time. (That’s César Alvarez and the Lisps providing preshow entertainment and kicky original music throughout the show.) The second is the absolutely inspired casting of playwright/actor/director/performance artist Taylor Mac as Shen Tei, the hooker with the heart of gold who must prove she’s a Good Person. It's a part intended for (and usually played by) a woman. To survive and thrive in Szechwan, Shen Tei pulls a Victor/Victoria and turns into her tight-fisted, stony-faced cousin Shui Ta. Naturally, the lithe, seemingly ageless star slips easily into the male ''disguise,'' and he’s just as convincing in Shui Ta’s tailored suit and loafers as he is in Shen Tei’s silky robe and glittery gold stilettos.
There are countless other brilliant little touches: the trio of white-robed sassy seniors (Mia Katigbak, Vinie Burrows, and Mary Shultz) who play the Gods; the cartoon-colored popup-book–style Szechwan village created by Petra Floyd; the curious resemblance of Shui Ta to Magritte’s man in a bowler hat; Lisa Kron who wrote the libretto and lyrics for Fun Home, playing two floors down from Good Person at the Public doing double duty as meek Mrs. Mi Tzu and loud-mouthed Mrs. Yang, then peeling off her wig to deliver the earnest epilogue, entirely in rhymed couplets, as herself.
Somehow, deBessonet has transformed Brecht’s too-often-didactic and dull allegory into an utterly engaging, emotionally involving experience. Perhaps that contradicts Brecht’s famed Verfremdungseffekt, or Alienation Effect; audiences are supposed to maintain a certain amount of intellectual objectivity, yes? I’ll take my Brecht with a heaping side of emotion, thank you very much and I’ll take deBessonet’s colorful, expressive vision anytime. Perhaps next she can bring me around to Pirandello. A
(Tickets: PublicTheater.org or 212-967-7555)