Last week I had an experience at the theatre that made me giddy. In the Foundry Theatre’s production of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan currently playing at La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theater, Brecht’s so-called “alienation” or “defamiliarization ” effect comes across without didacticism or heavy-handed militancy, and is alternatingly funny and devastating. But it was a circumstantial mishap the night that I went to the play that added an additional layer of complexity to the experience.
In Brecht’s play, the kind-hearted prostitute Shen Te, deemed a “good person” by a trio of traveling gods, struggles to uphold her commitment to generosity and love, even as every good deed renders her vulnerable to brutal manipulation and betrayal. Pushed to the edge of despair, Shen Te resorts to impersonating a fictitious cousin from a neighboring town, a man who makes decisions based solely on personal gain, and thereby climbs to a position of precarious prosperity.
At the end of the play, Shen Te asks if there is not something deeply wrong with a world in which basic kindness and generosity are systematically punished with hardship and poverty? The gods, however, disagree. They refuse to consider a structural reworking of human society, contenting themselves instead with watching the occasional human struggle to do “good” against the odds.
One aspect that struck me particularly was the production’s use of drag to deepen the central concern of the play. Taylor Mac’s drag rendition of Shen Te, with his bald head and chest hair unapologetically visible alongside a red dress and heels, destabilized from the start the assumption that Shen Te’s persona is the true identity and the exploitative cousin, Shui Ta, the disguise. This is not to say that Shui Ta was portrayed as more “real” than Shen Te. Both personas were disguises—or, perhaps more accurately, both were shown to be contextual manifestations of a multifaceted individual, capable of both profound selflessness and cold calculation, brought out by material necessity.
Also, I was oddly lucky to see the show on a night that afforded an additional level of meta-theatrics beyond the defamiliarization of character or social/economic system. Five minutes before the end of the play, right before the big reveal of Shen Te’s double persona, a small fire broke out onstage. In a direct address to the audience (and actors, crew, etc.) that Brecht would have been proud of, actor David Turner pointed and shouted, “there’s a fire!” It took me several long moments to realize that the fire was real. Since the fire was small and quickly extinguished, I can tell you how much I loved the ensuing moments. Audience and actors milled about in the lobby, not quite knowing how to acknowledge each other, while the fire department checked out the theater and deemed it safe. When the show started up again, we witnessed an unusual moment in professional theatre: the actors took their place onstage with the house lights on as audience members resumed position, announced they would take the scene back a few lines, and then flipped back into character. Taylor Mac made an impromptu reference to Ellen Stewart’s spirit speaking through the fire (Ellen Stewart founded the La Mama Theater in the 1960s), before resuming Shen Te’s final debate with the gods.
Call me romantic and impressionable, but this unexpected interruption drew a curious attention to the act of gathering to see a play, and although a degree of momentum was lost in the final reveal, something was gained through a heightened awareness of our collective commitment to finishing the play. The threat of fire and the attention to safety foregrounded our physical-ness, our materiality, and our vulnerability to external circumstances, further confirming the conflicted Shen Te’s conclusions. It’s a mishap I won’t forget.