Having enjoyed Strawdog’s production of “Uncle Vanya” recently, we decided to watch their latest production, Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Soul of Szechuan.”
WSJ Review by Terry Teachout:
If you doubt that it’s possible to write a political play that is both passionate and poetic, I offer in evidence Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Soul of Szechuan,” a parable of capitalism and its discontents that the Strawdog Theatre Company is performing with an exciting blend of fire, fantasy and irreverence.
The last of these qualities is especially important when it comes to the plays of Brecht, which are too often directed so didactically that they become stiff. Not this time: Shade Murray’s deceptively casual staging has the helter-skelter feel of a frat party whose guests have decided on the spur of the moment to put on a show. As you enter the black-box theater, a gaggle of musicians in the corner of the room are singing songs by Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. Then, almost without warning, the play gets under way, and before you know it you’re swept up in the tale of a Chinese village whose most spiritually minded citizen is a whore with a heart of 10-karat gold (Michaela Petro, who is terrific). Shen Te has come under the scrutiny of a trio of credulous gods who decide to reward her for her goodness, thereby triggering the law of unintended consequences and bringing about a sequence of dire and farcical events that are portrayed with great gusto by Mr. Murray’s fine cast.
The moral of “The Good Soul of Szechuan” is that it is impossible to do good in a radically corrupt society, and if you share Brecht’s Marxist politics, this leads to the ineluctable conclusion that capitalism must give way to communism. Fortunately, Brecht was a better poet than a prophet, and the symbolism of “The Good Soul of Szechuan” is sufficiently supple to allow viewers who take a different view of the devastating effects of communism on the human soul to interpret the play not as a Marxist tract but as a tragedy of man’s flawed nature. Either way, Strawdog’s production is a vibrantly expressive piece of theater that keeps you watching, then sends you home thinking—a solid working definition of what a good play should do.
The racy, colloquial translation is by David Harrower (“Blackbird”). Nic Dimond, Strawdog’s artistic director, designed the ramshackle set, which is atmospheric in just the right way. As the author of “The Threepenny Opera,” Brecht would surely have approved of it, and I also think he would have liked the musical settings by Mike Przygoda and Mikhail Fiksel of his lyrics, which are played with raggle-taggle abandon by a band whose randomly dressed members, much like the actors, give the charming impression of having poked their heads into the theater out of curiosity.
It was an awesome performance, not least because of Michaela Petro, who had an incredible range of emotions and a raw but powerful singing voice. I did not, however, get Brecht’s commentary on the pitfalls of capitalism; if anything, the moral of the story seemed to me that socialism could not succeed! And I also didn’t so much share the interpretation of the “tragedy of man’s flawed nature,” but rather saw it as a caution to those wanting to put blind faith in the power of the gods. Nevertheless, it was another enjoyable evening at the small and intimate theatre.