From left, Margo Hall, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie and Lily Tung Crystal appear in California Shakespeare Theater’s “The Good Person of Szechwan.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Brechtian morality tale goes down well at Cal Shakes

Comic talent abounds in ‘Good Person of Szechwan’

The story in “The Good Person of Szechwan,” onstage at California Shakespeare Theater, is simple enough: Three gods come to earth searching for one good human being.

They find Shen Te, a kind-hearted sex worker, in Szechwan province. Awarding her with silver dollars, which she uses to buy a tobacco shop, they depart, returning intermittently, in various amusing guises.

But Shen Te (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, who’s terrific in the role), discovers it’s not so easy to remain good in this world full of greedy and desperate folks who cannot afford to lead a moral life, or simply don’t want to.

Falling unwisely in love with one of those ordinary, not-especially-good people, aspiring pilot Yang Sun (Armando McClain), Shen Te finds life increasingly difficult.

That Bertolt Brecht’s 1943 fable can entertain for a full three hours is a testament not just to the playwright’s visionary approach to theater, but also to Tony Kushner’s witty and wise adaptation of the play (which was translated by Wendy Arons), to the comic talents and thoughtful insight of California Shakespeare Theater’s Eric Ting, and to a well-chosen cast.

The actors, of various ethnicities, play multiple clearly distinctive roles apiece, crisscrossing genders to great effect.

Only Fernandez McKenzie plays a single role, but not really. In despair, Shen Te masquerades part-time as her own ruthless male cousin (hilariously outfitted in spectacles, bushy mustache and bowler hat) in an effort to control the chaos that her own generosity has unleashed.

Performed in Brecht’s trademark presentational, or “epic,” style, complete with broken fourth wall, this is a “Good Person” in which every character that revolves around Shen Te embodies eccentricities of dress (wacky and inspired costumes by Ulises Alcala); broad, and perfectly executed, physicality, mannerisms and gestures; and oddball speech and mangled pronunciation (after all, this is not meant to actually be China). Words can be spat, or snarled or coughed up. Even Szechwan is uttered in a nasal whine.

In a sterling cast of a dozen, it’s unfair to single out anyone, but tall, skinny Dean Linnard as a policeman and Phil Wong as a rotund barber — not to mention Lily Tung Crystal as a cackling neighbor and Lance Gardner’s ever-hustling water-seller — are especially funny.

The few songs, set to Brecht’s downbeat, cynical lyrics and inspired by a variety of genres, were composed by Min Kahng and, within a modern idiom, evoke a Kurt Weill-like harshness, so perfect for Brechtian moral tale.

REVIEW

The Good Person of Szechwan

Presented by California Shakespeare Theater

Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes July 21

Tickets: $39 to $63

Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org

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