Director Carin Bratlie takes on the daunting task of staging Bertolt Brecht’s “Good Woman of Setzuan” to open the 2013-14 season of her Theatre Pro Rata, which has done much excellent work over the past 12 years.
The script demands a large cast — 10 in this production — and includes interstitial songs. It also presents a contradictory welter of socioeconomic critiques that threatens to push us beyond Brecht’s intentional “distancing effect” to a feeling of indifference.
Given these inherent hurdles, Bratlie and her spirited actors provide a lo-fi, entertaining, often humorous “Good Woman.”
In Brecht’s world, every relationship has an economic basis, and even goodness is governed by supply and demand. Arriving in the village of Setzuan, three gods find hospitality in short supply. The prostitute Shen Te (a very earnest Kelsey Cramer) says that while she herself is no darn good, there’s room at her place for the dithering deities. Grateful, the gods reward her with a sack of cash.
Shen Te uses her windfall to go legit, opening a tiny tobacco shop. It soon fills up, literally, with people seeking freebies, favors and handouts. In a nifty trick, Bratlie has up to eight chattering players, some with hand-held masks, crowding a wooden pallet that represents the store.
Since her charitable heart threatens to ruin the enterprise, Shen Te invents a male alter ego, a no-nonsense business partner called Shui Ta.
Shui Ta kicks out the freeloaders and cozies up to law enforcement. Business prospers. The little shop becomes a sizable factory.
Shen Te falls for a charming pilot (Foster Johns, good as the flyer, better as the cranky Mr. Shu Fu). Turns out, the cad views her as little more than an ATM. Even when Shen Te discovers this, her heart still belongs to the flyer. So much for the compatibility of goodness and good judgment.
Give us some complexity and ambiguity, but Brecht’s heroine is freighted with a dozen contradictory traits, along with the sexist notion that as a woman she is naturally a nurturer, a caregiver and a softie whose creed is “to fill everyone with happiness, even oneself.”
Shen Te later faces a tribunal. Here, amid a flurry of vague proverbs and testimony about who owes what to whom, my interest in the whole proceedings took a nosedive.
As a critique of capitalism, “Good Woman” doesn’t really scan: Venality is shown by bosses and workers alike. This wobbly parable clearly aims to instruct about economic justice, community and morality, but it ends up feeling like another tale of a hooker with a heart of gold.
On Twitter: @ClaudePeck