Go See This Play. It’s Downtown, but it’s Worth It.
For the Harlemites who aren’t daunted by the idea of trekking down to the East Village for a good show, they need only look as far as East 4th Street. There you can find a veritable buffet of some of the most experimental and powerful Off Off Broadway theaters that frequently present international and colorful work. The leading matriarch of this cluster of theaters for the last fifty years has been LaMaMa. Dedicated to the artist and all aspects of the theatre, LaMaMa was founded in 1961 by theatre pioneer, Ellen Stewart and has presented over 3,500 productions with artists from more than 70 nations and is a vital part of the fabric of NYC’s cultural life.
The late Stewart would be deeply proud to see the current production gracing the theatre named after her. The Foundry Theatre’s production of Good Person of Szechwan by Bertolt Brecht, directed by Lear deBessonet resonates with theatrical brilliance that continues this legacy. Downtown drag-cabaret-musical-theater legend, Taylor Mac shines as Shen Tei and Shui Ta, the gender-fluid protagonist who struggles to find a way to be both a good person, and financially successful. The play asks whether altruism is a recipe for financial disaster, and if it is possible to live in a world of absolutes.
The message of this play cuts through time and rings with present day application. With the rise of non-profit industries in the last twenty years, the growth of social entrepreneurship and corporate responsibility, and of course the recent Presidential election that pitted a moderate champion of the working class versus a self-made billionaire, the question of capitalism vs. charity, and short term fixes vs. long term prosperity hang in the audience as a collective thought bubble. Shen Tei’s plea for someone to consider “the citizen of tomorrow [who] is asking you for today,” hits a nerve.
The production never once feels like an economics lecture, but rather bursts from the stage with a blend of unbridled earnestness and self-aware theatricality. In the Brechtian tradition, the actors enter through the back of the house, they break the fourth wall and address the audience frequently, passing judgement and calling the audience to do the same. The lights on the front edge of the stage are simply light bulbs encased in coffee cans with a hole cut out of the side. The costumes are a mix of Eastern and Western tradition, pastiche that feels both timeless and timely, cardboard cut out clouds hang from the ceiling, and little cardboard houses staggered within the risers relay a kind of joyful return to simplicity of storytelling.
Perhaps the most impressive addition to this otherwise vintage play is a sassy new soundtrack, provided by indie darlings, César Alvarez and The Lisps. New songs, inspired by Brecht and written by Alvarez adorn the play with a lyrical quality but never goes so far as to make it feel like a musical. The rag tag band with a distinctly hipster meets blue grass vibe set the tone of the piece, and lift the audience out of the burden of making sense of a non-naturalistic plot.
Director deBessonet carried this colorful hodge podge motif into her casting choices as well, not only brilliantly featuring Mac in a career defining role, but other theater heavyweights like Lisa Kron, Vinie Burrows, Mia Katigbak, and Annie Golden. The ensemble cast is strong and easy to watch. Some performers seemed more comfortable than others with their relationship with the audience. Clifton Duncan as Wang Sun betrays a note of self-consciousness when he asks, “Have they told you I‘m a bad character?” Still Taylor Mac seems most at home with this style, ad-libbing a joke about the young actor playing Cupid in an earlier scene who tripped on his way to the stage. This openness with his viewers that normally feels like the lights coming on (sometimes they actually do) in a regular Taylor Mac show, now feels like a softer invitation. When Shen Tei realizes she is pregnant, Mac beams “what joy!” with such authentic gentleness that you feel the corners of your mouth unconsciously bend upward.
Notably, Brecht not only chooses to begin the play, in the traditional “medias res,” or middle of the action, but likewise ends the play. How many times can you say you’ve seen or heard a story that includes a pregnancy in which there is no resolution to the baby subplot? Stories usually begin or end with a baby either conceived or delivered, but rarely do you end a play with Taylor Mac as Shen Tei onstage in nothing more than a slip, barefoot, bald, and 6 months pregnant. The ensemble insists there must be a happy ending, if no other reason that the audience will walk away happy and a happy audience is how actors make a living, reminding us once again about the fragile connection between happiness and prosperity.
The Foundry Theatre’s Good Person of Szechwan, Directed by Lear deBessonet, featuring Taylor Mac, and César Alvarez and The Lisps plays at LaMaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre (66 East 4th St.) through February 24, 2013. www.lamama.org