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A CurtainUp Review
The Good Woman of Setzuan
By Elyse Sommer
Who would have thought that one of Brecht's parables, The Good Woman of Setzuan, could find new life as a thrilling musical with the look of Rent and a musical beat all of its own. But there it is. The Pulse Ensemble Theatre has mounted a completely contemporary and accessible version of the 1941 play and transformed the aptly named Raw Space on the westerly edge of 42nd Street into a pulsing urban landscape inhabited by a cast of 39. We could as easily be in the East Village as the city of Setzuan. The first character we see is a water seller (Brian Richardson) lying in the cardboard wrapper (the water he sells is not in pails but in the kind of water bottles we all carry around in our bags and knapsacks). Despite the contemporary feel of Michael Kay's set and Liam O'Brien's costumes, and the shortening of Brecht's title, director Alexa Kelly, never loses the flavor of a mythical, far-away city.
This unique musical may have a Rent sensibility but it remains very much the work of Bertolt Brecht, one of our most powerful and poetic dramatists. It is also remarkably true to Eric Bentley's adaptation for the stage. (Bentley who directed the 1956 New York premiere which starred Uta Hagen and Zeo Mostel contributed aditional lyrics to this production). I checked out my paperback copy of Bentley's adaptation, and the plot and characters and dialogue are all there though streamlined to accommodate the music. The epilogue in that book but omitted from the New York production is used here and makes for a very apt ending. This plot complications revolve around a fable.
Three Gods (Grenville Cuyler, Morten Ruda and Robert Zanfini) in search of signs of goodness in a corrupt world visit the city of Setzuan. Life is tough and the citizens are too concerned with survival to struggle with issues of good and evil. All except one, Shen Te (Hazel Anne Raymundo), a prostitute, (The Good Woman of the title), who would like to be good but must sell herself to pay the rent and eat. She is the only one who will give shelter to the gods who, happy to find even one sign of goodness reward her kindness. But this is not a simple fable of virtue rewarded and no sooner does Shen Te trade in her life as a prostitute for that of a shopkeeper than she finds she must protect herself from greedy friends and townsfolk and an irresistibly attractive but unworthy lover (Marcus Kettles).
I think you've got the idea. A lot happens between Shen Te's first and final meeting with the gods. The details of these subplots are unimportant to this review What is important is that Ms. Kelly has assembled her large cast wisely and propels them through the two acts with great finesse.
Hazel Anne Raymundo is superb both as the kind-hearted Shen Te and her invented male cousin Shi Ta. That adjective applies both to her acting and singing. Brian Richardson as the go-between water carrier and Kwang Sung as the unctuous Mr. Shu Fu are also strong actors and singers. Marcus Kettles as the exploitative Yang Sun is not quite dynamic enough as the lover though he sings well. On the other hand, Dianne Zumbro, makes the most of the smaller role of the mother, Mrs. Yang. Rather than to try to single out other individual performers, I'd like to applaud the ensemble. The several scenes where they are frozen into small tableaus while one or two of the leads sing are particularly noteworthy.
As it's difficult to limit praise to a few performers, it's also difficult to single out scenes and musical numbers. I suspect everyone's favorite will be the wedding party at the beginning of the second act with Shen Te in a gorgeous red kimono and the terrific "Perfect Harmony" and "Tickets to Peking" sung by the bride-to-be, her groom, Mrs. Yang and the Ensemble. Less complicated but equally clever bits of staging are epitomized by the hungry water seller's dream peopled by dancers using food posters as masks. A particularly full of snap and crackle number is "It All Adds Up" sung by Shen Te, the family who moves in with her and the carpenter (David J. Schuller).
In case any of you went to see last year's fine revival of Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children based on our praises, (see link to review at the end of this review), I might point out that unlike the somewhat atonal music by Darius Milhaud in that production, Michael Rice's music and lyrics are very melodic and a unique blend of opera and Broadway musical .
Given the energy of the production -- and the audience at the opening night performance I attended -- this Good Woman deserves to move to a larger home and given a longer run. But just in case this doesn't happen, buy yourself a ticket before the currently scheduled closing date rolls around.
To check out our review of last year's revival of Mother Courage And Her Children (a play with music but not a musical!) click here