In Look, I Made a Hat, the second volume of his collected lyrics, Stephen Sondheim recalls working with Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and John Guare on a musical based on one of Brecht’s Lehrstücke — literally, “teaching works.” Their adaptation, called by Bernstein A Pray by Blecht, was abandoned in 1968; one problem was Sondheim’s “Brechtophobia.” He had previously turned down an offer to write English lyrics for the Brecht-Weill Mahagonny because of what he calls its “ham-handed satirical comment,” and the more he read Brecht’s plays, the less he liked them. “I found the stagecraft intriguing, and sometimes the stories as well,” he writes, “but the cartoonish characters and polemic dialogue were, for me, insufferably simplistic. They had to be that way, of course, for Brecht’s purposes, but I was simply not one of his targeted audience and there was just too much Lehr in each stück to hold my attention.”
Today, few major dramatists would dare to admit such a phobia. For playwrights, not to mention critics, bowing to Brecht is a quick way of defining oneself as a true believer in the higher value of theater rather than a mere aesthete. Leaving aside that false dichotomy, this is a setup for no fun; if Brecht is a political litmus test for artists, productions of his plays will all too often be an endurance test for audiences. And this is precisely because “mere” aestheticism is so debased and undervalued. We live in a theatrical age of curdled pleasures on the one hand and cod liver oil on the other.
So a production of a Brecht play that manages to serve the text while remaining an effective entertainment is very rare, and very good news. That was the story when the Foundry Theatre presented Good Person of Szechwan earlier this year, and it’s still the story now, as the Public Theater remounts it in a slightly more expansive style. It continues to feature Brecht’s tendentious tendencies: Characters throw the world’s moral problems into the audience’s laps, as if the audience could do something about them pronto. But those moral problems are, as always, quite pressing — how can you be kind to those you love without being unkind to everyone else? — and are couched in ways that mostly restore their emotional resonance. My predecessor Scott Brown, reviewing the earlier mounting at La MaMa in February, called it “vivid, funny, devastatingly great.” I’ll second the first two cheers, but, like E.M. Forster reviewing America, withhold the third.
I don’t mean to suggest that vivid and funny make a low bar, especially with Brecht. Lear deBessonet, the director, has done wonders to dig a clear story and three hours’ entertainment out from under a pile of dogma. It is now, foremost, a bright parable, in which our heroine, the prostitute Shen Te, is found by a trio of Gods to be the only good person in town. This all but ruins her, as her goodness is impossibly tested by a world that only seems to reward evil. Eventually she caves, creating an alter ego — a male cousin, Shui Ta — to do everything selfish she can’t, and thus survive and prosper. As one of the Gods explains: “No one can be good for long if goodness is not in demand.”
Brecht does not stint on the tut-tut axioms, but deBessonet has found a way to make them sing. Sometimes literally: among the greatest boons to this production are the terrific vernacular songs by César Alvarez. As performed before the show by the indie rock group The Lisps (three guys in red plaid and a gal in turquoise), they are singalong fun with distinctly relatable and relevant hooks: “Our dream house got built / But then it fell right back down.” And in the play proper, using John Willett’s translations of Brecht’s own lyrics — which are usually musicalized with dreary Slavic drones as if the theater were a reeducation camp — Alvarez gives them the lift of friendly bar ballads.
But the story is made to sing even when the music is silent. Some of this, admittedly, verges on the twee, evoking the tinny quality of talented professionals working very hard at seeming naïve. The bad fake beards, cartoonish props, and general ticky-tack are politics in the guise of aesthetics, demonstrating the useful point that much can (and should) be made out of little. To back up the point, the production’s budget is printed in the program. (More than three-quarters of the $476,861 cost of the remount goes for salaries, royalties, and benefits; only $2,450 is for props.) But clever as some of these greenish workarounds can be — and Matt Saunders’s tiered set of cardboard houses is certainly droll — they are generally, like children’s theater, more charming than powerful.
Happily, there are dozens of other choices that, however political they may also be, seem simply smart and modern, instantly lending personality to characters who can otherwise seem like archetypes. The gods are reimagined as a trio of church ladies, one black, one white, one Asian; amusingly it’s the Asian one who can’t pronounce “Szechwan.” David Turner nails the excitedly pathetic water seller (“I am deeply ashamed, Illustrious Ones”) as a gayer Ed Grimley. And Lisa Kron — whose musical Fun Home is also playing at the Public, two floors below — finds hilarious correlates for the two different characters she plays: a disapproving landlady and a potential mother-in-law. The first is a double-bunned Eve Arden; the second a dragon-nailed Boca matron in clashing animal prints.
If I’ve buried the lead, it’s because he’s almost impossible to pin down. Taylor Mac, in the dual role of Shen Te and Shui Ta, must have been invented, or invented himself, to rescue this play. As a performance artist who works the blurry boundaries of gender, he is, of course, easily able to fulfill the surface requirements of the part. But beneath his shaved pate and glam macquillage — the sparkly lips and bruised eyes — he’s a fine singing actor, especially with stylistically ambiguous material, finding surprising reservoirs of emotion in the text without tipping Brecht into bathos. And because he naturally draws into question the assumption that male and female are two different things, he cracks open a play that sometimes wants us to believe that good and evil are, too. Even leaving aside his fetching way with a Chinese wedding headdress, I don’t see how anyone could ever have been as powerful in the part.
But it does still feel as if Mac is making a special, nontransferable case for Good Person. I’d like to see how he and deBessonet might handle more recalcitrant Brechtiana, like Caucasian Chalk Circle, with its blatant sexism. Theater that is purely didactic — too much Lehr — often gets stuck at the intersection of different dogmas. One bad idea brings down the whole philosophy. Which is why the quandaries Brecht cared so desperately about, and wanted to investigate through theater, should never be offered simply as math problems, requiring moral protractors and mental exertion. They need glitter, too.
Good Person of Szechwan is at the Public Theater through November 24.