Ten Thousand Things’ world premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s new “The Good Person of Szechwan” is a bracing —
Hold up, Brecht wrote the play 77 years ago? Well, it sure feels like it was written yesterday.
The title character is Shen Te (Joy Dolo), an impoverished prostitute who agrees to put up a trio of (disguised) gods for a night and is repaid with a pile of silver. Like many a lottery winner or “Jeopardy” champ, she is immediately besieged by requests from friends and “friends,” which she tries to fulfill while also improving her own modest life.
The play explores what it means to be a good person, which has always been relevant but is even more so in an era when the Supreme Court has decided that corporations are also people. But the ending, which throws the issue back on the audience, makes it clear that goodness is not something to be decided by courts.
Brecht, liberally adapted by Ten Thousand Things, broaches lots of heavy themes but the production is as light as the cymbal brushstrokes in the musical score Peter Vitale performs live. Cannily, director Michelle Hensley has gone the route of casting a performer usually known for comedy in the most serious role — Dolo is probably best known for her work with Children’s Theatre and as a founder of Blackout Improv — and that pays off big time in a Dolo performance that captures the pain of feeling forgotten but also accounts for the reality that there is humor to be found even in the darkest of times.
The rest of the versatile cast is pretty much all fun, all the time. The joyful spirit of this “Good Person” connects directly to the audience because we’re watching as the eight actors, most of whom play many characters, whip off one costume to pull on another.
One minute, Christina Baldwin is a bored-with-the-world teenager, swiping at her abacus like it’s a smartphone, and the next minute she’s an elderly villager who walks with her back parallel to the floor, a posture that will delight audiences as much as it will horrify Baldwin’s chiropractor. Sun Mee Chomet dazzles in her shifts among four roles, including a genial god and a gloomily manipulative villager. Max Wojtanowicz transforms from a doting mother to a god to a cop who apparently came to Szechwan by way of a Jimmy Cagney movie set in Brooklyn, circa 1948 (in the finale, he shifts among all three characters).
They’re magicians as much as they’re actors, and half the fun of this lively “Good Person” is seeing how they do their tricks. Which also happens to be appropriately Brechtian.
It’s hard not to watch “Good Person” and feel sad about it being the final TTT show for founder Hensley, who is moving on to other projects. But it’s the ideal goodbye, too, not just because “Good Person” was also the very first Ten Thousand Things show back in 1989, but because this production is TTT at its TTT-iest: inclusive, thoughtfully detailed, studded with wonderful actors and fueled by a sense of fun.