I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced anything quite like Frank Theatre’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Setzuan. Part site-specific experience in the vacant space of the former Rainbow Foods on Lake Street, part found object set and installation project, it’s an incredible production that immerses the audience from the very moment they arrive.
Using Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Brecht’s work, this adaptation follows the arrival of three gods (Katherine Ferrand, Janis Hardy, and Ellen Apel) in the poverty-ridden town of Setzuan. The water-seller (Patrick Bailey) anticipates their arrival and meets them, promising to help them find a place to spend the night. However, each person he asks turns them away, causing the gods to wonder if there’s a single good person left in this town. Finally, the Water Seller comes to the residence of Shen Te (Emily Grodzik), a prostitute who agrees to allow the gods to stay with her. Proclaiming her a good person, the gods give her a gift of money to help her pay her rent. But due to the need of the people around her and Shen Te’s generous heart, she tries to help others in the poor town, leading to trouble and the feeling that she is being used. In order to cope and survive, Shen Te literally splits herself in half, creating an alter ego of her cousin, Shui Ta, the help negotiate and run the tobacco shop she has bought with the gods’ gift. When Shen Te realizes that marrying would help her financially, she plans to marry someone with money – but instead falls for the out of work pilot, Yang Sun (John Middleton). Deciding to love Sun no matter what the cost (both literally and figuratively), she chooses to marry him, even if he doesn’t love her. However, things don’t go the way Shen Te plans and she becomes Shui Ta again, opening a factory and changing Sun into a harsh, workaholic foreman.
Brecht is known for being dense, blunt, and focusing on the message and the medium of theater. He doesn’t write a piece that allows you to escape – he makes you constantly aware that you are watching a play and causes you to connect it to the world around you. Some might find this heavy-handed, but Frank’s production presents this with such power and grace that it doesn’t feel heavy or contrived but rather thoughtfully constructed.
A lot of this is due to the powerhouse cast. Aside from the talent mentioned above, there’s an incredible ensemble that performs an array of characters and constantly change and shift the set. Highlights include Kirby Bennett as Mrs. Shin, a former tenant of the space who looks to Shen Te for help and is the only person who knows her secret; Adam Varela as the barber Shu Fu, who falls in love with Shen Te and gives some wonderfully melodramatic monologues; and Kate Beahen and Joseph Miller as the Wife and Husband, troublemaking tobacco store owners sans a store who camp out in Shen Te’s shop and push her towards needing the alter ego of her cousin (who ultimately takes advantage of their tobacco supplies for Shui Ta’s own gain).
This is also a play with music, composed by Dan Dukich, combining dissonant Kurt Weill styles with more modern (almost 80s pop?) sounds, which lends itself wonderfully to mood and atmosphere already in place. In one powerful scene, we see Shen Te transform into Shui Ta, all while singing “Song of the Defenselessness of the Good and the Gods,”about how the good can not remain in a society like this and that the gods are no help. “The Song of Smoke” is also wonderfully eerie and full of some great solos.
Combining wonderful lighting design by Mike Wangen, various lush and tattered costumes by Kathy Kohl, a clever set by Joe Stanley, and fantastic props by Kellie Larson (who also designed the lobby display), there’s a really rich world that’s created inside the vacant store. And because it is an old grocery store, there’s remnants of its former usage everywhere – which further hits home the issues of the play. The loading dock, which has become the stage, provides the perfect sort of decaying mechanistic feel for the show. And, incredibly, it has wonderful acoustics.
Though this show is three hours long, it doesn’t feel longer or ponderous. Instead, it draws the audience in and raises important questions: how does capitalism make us act like different people from the ones we’d like to be? How does labor change who we are? Can we be good when everything is expensive and so much of our lives are about money? How can we change the world? As someone who’s worked in retail and customer service since college, I’m elated to see this production (especially right before election day) that considers economic issues (and if you take the light rail to the show as I did, you’ll find it impossible to overlook how relevant it is to issues of poverty in Minneapolis, given the number of people who have made the space under the overpass of Hiawatha home). If you want to dig in deeper to the play, check out the research guides available for purchase. Or, bring a friend, grab a drink afterwards, and dig into the deep issues of post-modern capitalism raised in this brilliant show.
Good Person of Setzuan is written by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by Tony Kushner, and directed by Wendy Knox. It is playing now through November 20th at the former Rainbow Foods location on Lake Street. Show and ticket information can be found on Frank Theatre’s website.