Frank Theatre is no stranger to unusual performing spaces, as its current production of Bertolt Brecht's "The Good Person of Setzuan" in the empty shell of a former Rainbow Foods store attests. Indeed, the site offers a twist of sly humor given that the work is distinctly lacking in the hope that rainbows symbolize.
Upon arrival, the audience follows a path through a tent city (designed by Kellie Larson) that sprawls across the store's gutted floor. The journey ends at a cavernous loading dock furnished with risers and chairs. Wooden pallets, a metal staircase and exposed pipes create the grim backdrop of Joe Stanley's set, as raggedly dressed actors lounge about, eating and chatting. Dripping water echoes in the background. It's an appropriately derelict setting for Brecht's unhappy morality tale.
The play opens with the arrival of three goddesses, portrayed with ditzy charm by Ellen Apel, Katherine Ferrand and Janis Hardy. When kindhearted prostitute Shen Te (Emily Grodzik) offers them shelter for the night, they reward her with a gift of money, which she uses to purchase a tobacco shop. Then her real troubles begin.
Relatives and acquaintances descend on the young woman, eager to take advantage of her generosity. Her landlord extorts her. Her lover plots to defraud her. At wits' end, Shen Te takes on an alter ego, disguising herself as fictitious cousin Shui Ta, a man as exploitative as Shen Te is openhanded.
Subtlety isn't Brecht's strong suit and this challenging play, seen here in Tony Kushner's adaptation, is particularly message-laden as it ponders the nature of goodness in an evil world. A nice sense of irony would go a long way in lightening the didactic tone, as would some judicious editing (it runs a tad over three hours). Unfortunately, this ambitious production, under Wendy Knox's direction, is more earnest than wry, juggling a multiplicity of styles that never coalesce.
Kirby Bennett offers the most spot-on performance as Shen Te's nosy neighbor. She gleefully enjoys every aspect of the spectacle unfolding in front of her, managing to be in the moment and yet outside it, enlisting the audience in her sardonic viewpoint. Grodzik capably manages dual roles as Shen Te and Shui Ta, while Patrick Bailey lends the role of the Water Seller a sense of whimsical resignation.
Dan Dukich's music underlies the production's strongest moment, punctuating a luridly lit sweatshop scene with percussive force as Shui Ta's workers toil under ever-increasing demands. It delivers a punch that visually and viscerally embodies the play's bleak message with far greater impact than all the earnest effort that precedes it. This is the kind of more-show-less-tell that the production needs.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.