By MARK BLANKENSHIP
"Is there anything more toxic than the academic way of understanding Brecht?"
So asks Lear deBessonet, director of the Foundry Theatre's massively successful production of Good Person of Szechwan, which premiered earlier this year at LaMama and is currently at the Public Theater. It takes about fifteen seconds to realize her vision of the play---which includes dumb jokes, full-scale musical numbers, and a small child dressed like a rabbi---is a wild rebuke to the classroom vision of Bertolt Brecht's playwriting.
For many people who studied Mother Courage in college, the story on Brecht may have gone something like this: He was a chilly social thinker, using his work to present complex political arguments about economics, culture, and oppression. And oh yeah, his plays were never about feelings. They were about the Verfremdungseffkt, which is usually translated as "alienation effect." That meant his writing refused to let us empathize with his characters, so that we had to think about their political choices instead. If it was bloodless and heartless, well… that's the cost of real thinking.
Granted, some of that received wisdom is correct. Brecht's plays are about social and political ideas, and they do ask us to consider characters' choices instead of simply identifying with their feelings.
Take what happens in Good Person of Szechwan: Three gods descend on the Chinese province, looking for a single "good person" who can convince them that humanity deserves to endure. Eventually, they find a prostitute named Shen Tei who tries her best to be generous with everyone. The gods reward her with enough money to start a business, but she quickly discovers that she can't take care of everyone's needs without ruining herself. To survive, Shen Tai dresses as Shui Ta, her fictional male cousin, who makes ruthless choices to save the business at the expense of the needy.
Brecht's questions are clear: In a capitalist society, is it possible to be a moral person who cares for others while remaining a pragmatic person who survives? Are love and kindness just commodities to be bought and sold? Does self-preservation necessarily mean solipsism?
But as deBessonet's production stresses, there's no need for these questions to be coldly unfeeling. "There's an underestimation of how much heart is in Brecht's pieces," she says. "So much of his writing about theatricality has this joy, this pure love of theatre, and I really wanted to unleash that in our approach to this."
The performance artist Taylor Mac, for instance, gives a moving performance as Shen Tei, and even when he changes into Shui Ta's masculine drag, he's rocked by the emotional consequences of his choices.
As deBessonet argues, that's still Brechtian. It's not that the characters in this play don't feel anything. It's that the audience is not necessarily expected to feel the same thing.
Thanks to the playwriting and the production, we can appreciate Shen Tei's joyous decision to marry a man she loves, for instance, even though we see that he's using her. To use a Brechtian term, the scene might "alienate" us from the romance on stage, but that doesn't mean it's antiseptic. ("I think 'make strange' or 'make new' is a better translation of Verfremdungseffekt than 'alienation,'" deBessonet says.)
And just as importantly, we can enjoy Shen Tei's journey, even as we think about it. deBessonet's production is unapologetically entertaining, blending the raucous fun of crude humor with the artisanal pleasure of carefully crafted moments.
To wit: When Shen Tai chooses to marry Yang Sun, a poor pilot, instead of a wealthy businessman, the stage erupts into a musical number, complete with dance moves, a giant paper heart that looks like it was made by a kindergartener, and a surprise appearance from Cupid. "All of the choices about having Cupid and a big heart and these guys singing doo-wop---it's not an attempt to be ornamental," deBessonet says. "It's trying to access the I-don't-care-what-it-costs-me joy that Shen Tei feels when she makes this choice."
Again, though, we can appreciate the song without agreeing the romance will last. That's partly why the number, which is not in Brecht's script but sprang from the development of this production, has obviously hand-made props and occasionally awkward dance moves. It's a reminder that what we're watching comes from real people. "It's like a failure of spectacle," deBessonet says. "It's like the characters are saying, 'We need to tell this story so badly, and we're going to use whatever we have.' Because it's hand-made, it's kind of flawed, but it's human."
In a larger sense, deBessonet's entire career focuses on the joy and power of imperfect humanity. As the leader of the Public's Public Works program, she oversees projects that unite communities from across New York, and many of the participants are not professional artists. But whether they're in a theatre workshop or appearing in the 200-person version of The Tempest that deBessonet directed for Shakespeare in the Park this year, these communities aren't necessarily trying to be flawless. They're trying to use the communal power of the theatre to express something authentic. You could say the same thing about Brecht.
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Carol Rosegg