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THEATER REVIEW : A Good Look at the Hard Lessons of 'Good Person'

August 02, 1994|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

LA JOLLA — Bertolt Brecht had no time for subtlety. The German playwright was on the run from the Nazis with his Jewish wife when he wrote "The Good Person of Setzuan."

When the gods name prostitute Shen Te as the world's sole, good person, they give her a cash reward that attracts all the greedy, hungry and lazy in Brecht's mythical but all too familiar city. "Good Person" shows Brecht at his essence, barraging the audience with the world's toughest questions, starting with "What claim exactly do the hungry have on us?"

At the La Jolla Playhouse, writer Tony Kushner's hip and poetic adaptation (from a literal English translation) provides a direct link between Brecht and Kushner's own consuming search for decency that makes up much of his epic "Angels in America." But there are differences. Kushner can make you cry; Brecht has no interest in tears.

In the hands of the remarkably versatile director Lisa Peterson, this vividly entertaining production spans the two sensibilities, both comically cold and unexpectantly touching. Her Setzuan is a true melting pot, spilling over with evil, humor and color, and kicked into life by an eclectic/funky score (provided by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and Louie Perez) that embraces pop, rap and Latin rhythms with equal energy and fun. Peterson knows how to keep an audience entertained, even one that is being lectured to.

Designer Robert Brill sets the playfully agonized tone by stripping the deep stage bare to the back wall, which is painted a bright red and half-covered by a gigantic lizard slithering on its belly down toward the action. There it hangs, threatening to engulf the town but never moving an inch.

This impending monster seemingly propels the townspeople into all sorts of enterprising immoralities. "Under less miserable circumstances, we would have been OK," muses the rogue lover Yang Sun (Lou Diamond Phillips) after exploiting Shen Te's generous devotion. Energetically shedding his too-good film image from "La Bamba," Phillips swaggers and sings his way across the stage with desultory pleasure.

One of his songs, a slave-driving incantation delivered to yellow-suited workers who toss boxes to one another in a stationary dance, is one of the high points of the evening.

Charlayne Woodard is the woman he woos and abuses, the incandescent Shen Te, who loves Yang Sun and vows: "I won't calculate what it costs me." Woodard is lyrical in the play's only purely joyful passage, Shen Te's ode to an awakening city after a night spent with her lover. In Brecht's happily atheistic view, the dirty pavement leading from a lover's house is infinitely preferable to the heavenly clouds promised to us by gods who have no practical understanding of the world we live in.

Using her reward money, Shen Te buys a little tobacco shop that is immediately threatened by an army of creditors. In order to stop the hordes from milking her dry, Shen Te dresses as a man, the ruthless Shui Ta. Brecht probably divided his heroine to depict the tough love of capitalism, in which one is coldly pragmatic in order to protect what one loves most. Woodard uses it to show both a woman's crippling inability to face what she must and the terrible price a man pays for performing the dirty work.

Using wonderful masks--which make the gods look alternately sad, tired, wise and unknowing--Peterson continually pumps up Brecht's innate theatricality and provides an avenue into a world designed to be emotionally alienating. In one scene, a lost child is represented by a puppet. Manipulated by a fully visible puppeteer on a high rafter, the child makes its way to a garbage can, where it fishes out some paper that it either eats or uses as tissue for its futile tears. This eerie image, bone chilling in its directness, is infinitely more mysterious and stirring than any actual child actor could have provided.

The cast (with actors in multiple parts) largely understands that Brecht's bold overstatement must be tinged with the ridiculous. Especially good are Chris De Oni as the puffed-up barber who loves Shen Te for her generosity, even as he beats beggars who annoy him; Ching Valdes-Aran as the landlady who's a cross between David Bowie, Lotte Lenya and the bride of Frankenstein; Diane Rodriguez as Yang Sun's overweening mother, and Gedde Watanabe as the fearful but eventually brave water seller.

In Brecht's favorite user-unfriendly mode, the play ends abruptly, in an epilogue that begs the audience's indulgence. Peterson stages it with charming simplicity. In a line, the actors read verse that winds up on a Dr. Seuss note, asking theater-goers to be "brave and just . . . for the world must be happy/It must, must, must."

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