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Volume 91, Issue 42

Wednesday, November 12, 1997

Downey fresh


Better than sauce

©Nick Burdan/Gazette
PLEASE SIR, CAN YOU SPARE A DRINK? Drs. Gedalof and Green act as local peasants, with Scott Holden (seated) as Wong the water seller in Bertolt Brecht'sThe Good Woman of Setzuan.

By Carey Franklin
Gazette Staff

Who defines goodness? Is it religion – which has been laid out in 10 easy steps? Is it the feedback one receives from others? Or is it merely a question of how good you actually feel? These are some of the thoughts The Good Woman of Setzuan evokes.

Written by Bertolt Brecht, The Good Woman of Setzuan chronicles the struggle of a woman, Shen Te (Rachel Jones), to make the most out of her life. Her quest for 'goodness' is juxtaposed against the parallel journey of three god figures to find a good person in this world. However, problems arise quite early in the play.

The production opens with an encounter between Wong, a local water seller (played by Scott Holden) and the three god figures (Bertie Watts, Julia Watts and Andrew Fieldsend). Wong desperately tries to find lodging for the gods – but no one will oblige. In this poor area, the belief in a higher power has been diffused by the desolate times. Wong then asks Shen Te to house the travellers, but if she does not tend to her 'gentlemen caller,' she will not be able to pay her rent. She eventually decides to help the three gods out and Brecht establishes an irony in that the good woman of Setzuan is a prostitute.

This spurs many ethical questions. Can one separate the chosen trade from the true spirit of a person? Do their actions reflect upon their souls? Don't get too intimidated, however, as the play is not too philosophical and morally deep. Rather, The Good Woman of Setzuan is delightful mix of drama, comedy and music, sprinkled with a didactic lesson.

The gods decide that if Shen Te had some money, she would not need to sell her body and therefore supply her with a little monetary 'gift.' From here, She Te buys a Tobacco store, on her way to becoming a 'legitimate' citizen and the play moves onward from this point.

However, Shen Te encounters many obstacles on her quest for goodness. It is quite impossible to help out the poor and try to maintain a business. Brecht includes a bitter foster mother (Susan McDonald) and a cunning, sexually-frustrated landlady, played brilliantly by Kathryn Charely, to comment on the difficult task Shen Te has undertaken – as well as add a comedic light.

The performance itself stunningly portrays Brecht's problematic nature with 'goodness.' The entire cast is wonderful, whether it be a protagonist or merely a police officer. As Shen Te, Jones' adaptability in both song and gender is mesmerizing and she ties every aspect of the performance together. Holden's rendition of Wong is equally impressive, especially in his a cappella solo. In the total silence of the theatre, his musical plea for business is outstanding and is one of many highlights of the play.

Another interesting technique used by director Mary Neill is the lack of rigid boundaries between the audience and the stage. On several occasions, the characters walk throughout the audience, not only creating a more intimate effect, but also making the audience an active member in the play. As Wong points out, "We write the happy ending to the play." Brecht wants the audience to identify with Shen Te's journey for ultimate goodness and the difficulty maintaining total morality in today's society.

Although Brecht's play is supposed to spark discussion of the employment of religion in our times, it is more entertaining than confusing. Again the comedic and musical elements deny the theme of the play from becoming too 'deep.'

If intelligent theatre is your thing, The Good Woman of Setzuan may be worth seeing. Not only will you leave with something to talk to your roommate about, but you will witness some of the finest acting, singing and drama offered in London this year. Just because this is a university production, does not mean it is amateur. Rather, Neill's take on Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan will hopefully urge more people to join the band-wagon to keep performances such as this one around for a few more years.

The Good Woman of Setzuan plays 8 p.m. nightly, Nov. 11 - 15 at Talbot Theatre.

To Contact The Arts and Entertainment Department: gazent@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright © The Gazette 1997