'The Good Person of Setzuan' at Towson has charming moments

November 21, 1991|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Evening Sun Staff

Bertolt Brecht's contemporary morality satire on the relative practicality of virtue, "The Good Woman of Setzuan," is being staged by an all-student cast and crew in the Fine Arts Mainstage Theatre at Towson State University through Saturday.

Under the scholarly direction of C. Richard Gillespie, the title has been changed to "The Good Person of Setzuan." We assume the director took this liberty to emphasize the dual individuality of the central character and not the gender.

Brecht, the acclaimed German playwright, along with Erwin Piscator founded the "epic theater." The sole purpose was to use the stage as an instrument of learning for the masses. Brecht believed theater should teach rather than entertain.

Staged by Gillespie as a play within a play, this difficult and big work has many amusing and charming moments especially in the second act. In the first act the pace and characterizations are uneven and take too long to get moving.

Gillespie has used a translation by Eric Bentley and set the play not in the Chinese motif of Setzuan as originally written but in a slum district evocative of a decaying American city.

We would like to say at the onset that we think the piece would be far funnier and work better in the Oriental setting since the characters' names remain Chinese and Brecht's amusing, philosophical dialogue has a Far Eastern texture. The mores and manners as written reflect an ethnic superficial humility and grace that does not work as well in a Western setting.

The play mocks religion, too, as well as the so-called "feminine" and "male" roles in society.

The story tells of three gods who descend from heaven to find as many good people so the world can stay alive. The town's big-hearted whore, Shen Te, offers them shelter for the night and they reward her with money to buy a tobacco shop.

She befriends the homeless and falls in love with a lascivious unemployed aviator who drains her of her small fortune. To keep the group provided for she takes on the false identity of Shui Ta, an invented male "cousin." Feeling the heady power of being a "man" she makes him into a ruthless businessman. As such, she DTC exploits the very people she is trying to help.

When she makes enough money to become "good" again she gives it away to the poor. Eventually she is taken into court for the "murder" of Shen Te who has "disappeared." To sum it up, this modern fable has a universal significance and puts forth the jaded truth: If you want to do good you cannot be good.

Joy Schiebel does a very credible job in her tough dual roles, bringing a fine contrast of characters to Brecht's play. Ivan Hall as the narrator/water seller often amuses and Cortland H. Smith succeeds as a hateful, opportunistic scoundrel.

Sam Stephens, John Ignatowski and Erin Haderly beguile as idealistic gods glad to escape the madness of earth and return to the serenity of their heaven.

*

John Patrick Shanley, the author of "Moonstruck," has written another perceptive, earthy comedy about the wild Italian heart, "Italian American Reconciliation" playing at the Fell's Point Corner Theatre through Dec. 15.

The plot centers on an extremely distraught young man who still pines for his nasty-tempered ex-wife, who he claims "took the power away from me." He has to get it back. In doing so he enlists the aid of his best pal who has a morbid fear of women and marriage.

How they achieve their goal makes for an entertaining evening. Beneath the comedic surface lie fundamental, sensitive truths about the relationships of men and women and the important acceptance of self.

But director Steve Goldklang has chosen not to give full vent to this wonderful script and has the talented actor Tony Colavito underplay the role of the tempestuous, crazed suitor. Mark E. Campion fares better but he, too, needs to open up his character and let the strong emotions hang out.

Amy Jo Shapiro as the cold but hurting wife also down plays her role too much. This is a wonderfully hilarious human comedy that deserves excellent timing and high comic delivery to do the playwright justice.

Audrey Cimino and Darlene Deardorff in the roles of an aunt and niece suffer from the same lackluster staging.

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