Three gods descend to earth but can’t find anyone to put them up. The future of the race might depend on them finding that one good person to prove hard times haven’t turned mankind sour.
Finally, a waterseller refers them to a prostitute, who gives them shelter. The gods reveal themselves and reward her—in part to test whether success will spoil her. Immediately, everyone, rich and poor, seems to want a piece of “the Angel of the Slums,” the woman “who can’t say no” to someone in need, until in desperation she poses as a hard-nosed male cousin to get the others off her back. Her fortunes continue to prosper, until the “cousin” is accused of doing away with the absent good samaritan and put on trial ...
Told like that, Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan sounds almost like a shaggy dog story. Brecht’s late plays, after he returned from a desultory turn as emigré Hollywood screenwriter to postwar Germany to lead the Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin, were often cast in the form of theatrical parables, and Woman’s Will is staging The Good Person outdoors, for free, in John Hinkel Park (through this weekend at 1 p.m., then on and off in other East Bay Parks) in a broad fashion as a kind of fairytale for adults.
As is Woman’s Will’s mission, whether playing Shakespeare in the park, or—say—Oscar Wilde, site-specific in Victorian mansions, all the performers are female, close to 20 in number, directed by founder Erin Merritt, who has staged Brecht before, Happy End as cabaret at Luka’s Taproom in Oakland. El Beh, a graduate of UC’s Performance Studies, stands out in her portrayal of the kind and harried Shen Te and her “tough cop” pretend cousin, Shui Ta, as does her fellow UC alumna, Holly Chou, as Wang, the steadfast waterseller.
“A hand held out to the hungry will be ripped away.” Brecht couched hard truths in the form of aphorisms and maxims that pepper the texts of his plays. “Why bother philosophizing when the milk’s already spilt?”
This play of his is quietly ambitious, for it fulfills perhaps his greatest contribution to the stage in both theory and practice—the Social Gesture—by identifying it with the primal theatrical act: in order to overcome oppression, a too-sympathetic woman pretends to be an aggressive man—the duplicity of the stage, with a vengeance, both politically and theatrically transparent to the audience.
Brecht performed alfresco makes a great deal of sense. He wanted his audiences to be relaxed, enjoying what they saw and interested in what it portrayed, but not manipulated by vicarious identification with the characters or the suspense that leads up to an already decided fate.
In fact, his praise of classical poetry was not of its venerable antiquity, the admiration of past ages, but its freshness. Virgil and Ovid, he said, should be read outdoors, in the sunlight and open air.
THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHUAN
Presented by Woman’s Will (www.womanswill.org). The following performances are free, donations accepted.
July 19, 1 p.m., John Hinkel Park, Berkeley
July 20, 1 p.m., John Hinkel Park, Berkeley
July 25, 6 p.m., Hillside Clubhouse Lawn, Rossmoor (Walnut Creek)
July 26, 1 p.m., Mosswood Park, Oakland
July 27, 1 p.m., Dimond Park, Oakland
Aug. 2, 1 p.m., San Felipe Park, Hayward
Aug. 2, 6 p.m., Centennial Park, Pleasanton
Aug. 3, 1 p.m., Rengstorff House, Mountain View
Aug. 9, 1 p.m., Dolores Park, San Francisco
Aug. 10, 1 p.m., Dolores Park, San Francisco
Aug. 15, 6 p.m., Yerba Buena Children’s Garden, San Francisco
Aug. 16, 4 p.m., Yerba Buena Children's Garden, San Francisco
Aug. 17, 1 p.m., Dolores Park, San Francisco