Monday, February 4, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: The Good Woman of Setzuan

Peter Brown in To Prepare a Hard Boiled Egg
Peter Brown, an actor who was with us from day one and has perhaps logged the most acting miles overall with the company, tells his memories of a very early production (our second in New York), The Good Woman of Setzuan.  I have often thought of revisiting it; I was very happy with the overall concept, though I would definitely tweak the audience interactive parts and probably bring in more music.

Of the many UTC61 productions I've had the pleasure to be part of over the past two decades, the one that's most distinctive for me is the 1994 staging of Brecht's (and Steffin and Berlau's) The Good Woman of Setzuan. I say "most distinctive" because it would be impossible to write about the most enjoyable one. There is none. They were all wretched experiences and I'm glad They were all highly enjoyable and fulfilling theatrical experiences, with Edward's trademark intelligence, humor, and deep trust of his actors unfailingly present. That goes for Good Woman, as well. Yet it was in Good Woman that I first encountered the kind of challenging thinking on Edward's part that would make UTC61 truly a "theater of ideas."

In a nutshell, Edward believed that in the many years since Good Woman's 1943 premiere, Brecht's so-called "alienation" techniques (actors directly addressing the audience, unflattering lighting, interrupting the action with songs) had become dull from overuse, and were no longer sufficient to accomplish Brecht's original intention of reminding the audience that they were watching a play, purposely disrupting the willful suspension of disbelief on which theater is based. Edward, in effect, sought to put the alienation back into Brecht. He conceived of a production of The Good Woman of Setzuan set on a bare black-box stage, with floor-tape outlines of the basic playing areas and a few simple wooden cubes for occasional furniture or levels. The lighting would be only the room's fluorescent lights, shining equally on stage and house, and the play's sixteen characters were to be played by five actors, in mildly distinctive rehearsal clothes, each wearing removable placards with the name of the character they were portraying at a given moment. As there are several scenes in which more than five characters appear, the name-placards would sometimes be hung on music stands literally "standing in" for the character, while the actor voicing the character moved from one stand to another (and from one voice and physicalization to another) as the dialogue of the scene required. In addition, at certain points in the play, the action would stop altogether and one of the five actors would address the audience directly, as him or herself, the actor, and offer extemporaneous thoughts or questions about the play and its ideas. The audience was encouraged to do the same, and not only at the pre-arranged pauses set by the director, but, ideally, whenever they felt so moved.

Now I'd be lying if I said this wasn't a thrill for the cast. We each got to play multiple parts, some voiced by different actors in different scenes. I think three of us played the Unemployed Man over the course of the play. And there was a lot of manic fun in having to shift, on a dime, from one music stand/character to another as the dialogue required. I imagine (hope) that for the audience it was a bit like watching the voice-over recording sessions for a really good animated TV series. Each of us also had at least one lead role which we alone played. The young pilot Yang Sun, Wong the water-carrier/chorus figure, Shu Fu the unctuous barber/capitalist. I, myself, played Shu Fu, as well as all three of the Gods as a sort of Robin Williams-ish schizophrenic having conversations with himself. Interestingly, Edward went against the only doubling up that Brecht himself had assigned, that of Shen Te and Shui Ta. The chief conceit of the play is in the soft-hearted prostitute Shen Te's creation of a hardass, male cousin alter-ego, Shui Ta, to save her fledgling tobacco shop from moochers and layabouts. Yet Edward had one actor play Shen Te, throughout, and another play Shui Ta.

Feeling alienated, yet? Some of the audience seemed to. I don't recall a performance of the run in which we didn't lose at least a few people at the intermission. The spontaneous talk-back they'd been encouraged to initiate didn't materialize, apart from a few brave attempts by Edward's dear brother David, a lawyer, who at one performance, stood up in the middle of a scene to ask if one of the characters needed a lawyer, and held out his business card. One of the actors, staying in character, grabbed the card and claimed it was "no good, here," tore it up, and continued with the scene. Another night, an actor, during his pre-arranged moment of addressing the audience, concluded his remarks by turning off the room's fluorescent lights, plunging the house into darkness, and leaving the stage bathed in the comparatively warm yellow wash of a couple fresnels that had been added for front-lighting. A cast member sitting next to me gasped quietly, the scene resumed, and for a moment it felt like the "real" play had begun, like Judy Garland first opening that door onto the full color land of Oz after the lengthy black-and-white intro...until Edward quietly walked to the back of the house and turned the fluorescents back on.

Looking back, though, I wonder if moments such as these were, in fact, the very lightning Edward was trying to capture in a bottle. Moments when the stark difference between the theatrical and the real, the planned and the unplanned, became abruptly evident. At the time, and for some years afterward, I had a stumbling block with Edward's concept in that it seemed to only be about the difference between theatrical realities. Theater about theater was still theater. If Edward, like Brecht, wanted to break through the easy sentiment of traditional narrative theater, and expose the emotional manipulation at the heart of theatrical performance, why not just write an essay? It seemed that we were fighting fire with fire.

Or maybe I just wanted more flattering lighting. The truth is, now, as I re-read the paragraphs above, I can't help but think, "That sounds like a really neat Good Woman of Setzuan."

Happy 20th, UTC61!

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