The Theatre Department hopes you don’t get into the story of its latest production, The Good Woman of Setzuan.
That’s because it’s a Bertolt Brecht work and Brecht believed that the only way to get the point across in theater was to keep the audience from getting too comfortable.
In The Good Woman of Setzuan, which opens Friday, actors will talk to the audience, sing and dance in order to keep the crowd focused on the moral of the story: It’s hard to be a good person these days.
The story begins when three gods (Tim Lambert, Michael Belanger and Gale Pauley) visit Earth in search of human goodness. They ask Wong, the water seller (Brian Wilson), who would put them up that night. The only person willing to help the deities is Shen Te, a prostitute (Megan Marino). The trio rewards her with a sum of money, but what was at first a boon becomes a burden. Shen Te uses the money to purchase a tobacco shop and finds herself surrounded by jealousy and greed.
Minor Rootes, theater professor and the director of this production, explained that this simple story is more complex than it seems because it is a departure from the style of theater that most people are accustomed to.
“[Brecht] wanted the audience to always remember they were in a theater,” said Rootes. In order to do that, Brecht mixed drama and comedy, had actors speak to the audience directly and introduced music to non-musical pieces [see “Not-so-incidental music,” this page].
Characters are also hard to get a beat on, changing and surprising viewers into attention. Rootes notes that Brecht avoided sympathetic characters.
“Once you start feeling sympathy you start to lose the message,” he explained.
While a performance based on jarring and unsettling the audience sounds like a lot of trouble for an evening theater, Rootes said that the finished project is not nearly as distressing as it sounds.
“It’s not difficult to watch. When it’s done well it’s very entertaining.”
Perhaps it’s not difficult for the crowd then, but the demands on the actors are significant. For actors trained to try to be as realistic as possible and to engage the audience in the story, Brecht’s style is a challenging departure. Rootes said he believes this will be a good experience for them.
“Since this is a teaching theater, I wanted to expose our students to Brechtian style,” he said.
The cast includes Shannon Campbell as Mrs. Shin, the former owner of a tobacco shop, Mark Friedlander as Yang Sun, a factory manager, David Timm as a policeman and Chris Parker as Shu Fu the barber. Also in the ensemble are Angela Lemire, Ariel Francoeur, Rachel Garfield, Antonia Zykova, Courtney Elliott, Sheal Kimball, Neil James, Amanda Nickerson, Rob Richardson, Sean Demers, Corey Anderson, Christina Nelson, Ethan Hinton, Brian T. Wilson and Dan Cassely.
The Good Woman of Setzuan shows at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 9, 10, 14-17, and at 5 p.m. Nov. 11 and 18 on the Main Stage in Russell Hall, Gorham. Admission is $10 for the general public, $7 seniors and $5 for students. Tickets are available at the Theatre Box Office, 780-5151.
Arts & Entertainment editor Meghan Conley can be contacted at [email protected]ail.com