In The Good Person of Szechuan, kind-hearted prostitute Shen Te inherits a small fortune by offering solace to three gods on a quest to discover whether good people exist in the world. As various social vultures start circling her newfound wealth—including a loutish pilot with whom she falls in love—our whore with a heart of gold forks over so much of her livelihood that she comes perilously close to ending up on the street again. Realizing she has to look out for No. 1, Shen Te disguises herself as an ass-kicking male cousin, Shui Ta, to make the tough business decisions she can't.
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Most of this epic parable was written by playwright Bertolt Brecht's mistresses—Ruth Berlau and Margarete Steffin (shamefully uncredited by both Brecht and director Robert Cohen's copious notes)—and it's easy to see the play as their autobiographical cry for help. "Disguised" as Brecht to get their work produced, they thought they were helping the man they loved—despite his disdain—while he and his wife looted the proceeds and left them both to die neglected and relatively forgotten.
This UC Irvine production barely taps into the rage and disillusionment that drives the play. It may be the uneven cast of more than 30 student actors who aren't clicking with the material. It may simply be that Cohen can't make up his mind about the play: his program notes imply a multicultural, we're-all-in-this-together vision; his staging suggests a critique of revolutionary China by putting Shui Ta in Maoist dress.
Perhaps Douglas Langworthy's translation is too faithful; his script—including the wholly cornball Brechtian coda at play's end—encourages the audience to think of ways to give the play a happy ending. Eric Bentley's adaptation would have been a better choice: shorter and funnier, it lops the epilogue and leaves us with an ending both bitterer and more haunting—Shen Te on her knees, stripped of her male persona, begging the gods for help as they drift skyward. In that last image, we're right there with her, pleading to empty air as the weight of the world comes crashing down on her shoulders.
The Good Person of Szechuan at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 854-4646 or (949) 824-2787. Thurs.-Fri., April 25-26, 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. $7-$15.