Monday, April 2, 2012

Good Person of Szechwan (NYC)

So, I am still in the process of trying to catch up on the back log of shows I’ve seen in the last few weeks, I am skipping ahead.

First, some history on why I am so behind – if you have read the other posts in this blog, you will notice two blogs that are not about theatre. Yea, true story, I accidentally started a grassroots political movement a few weeks ago, and it has taken over my life. I have never really thought of myself as political, but I did this thing, and it’s been amazing. I love it! And I can’t believe I have gotten so many people to respond and stand with me!

This, however, is also why I want to skip forward in my blog. I saw Good Person of Szechwan by Berthold Brecht. For those of you who know me, I have a Brecht thing. I love him. Really because I was forced to write a paper on Artaud in college, and I discovered I HATED him, and Brecht is about as opposite of Artaud are you can get… Therefore, I developed a fondness for him.

This was, in point of fact, the first live Brecht show I have ever been able to see. And that in and of itself was very exciting for me. Also, this show was especially timely to me at the moment, due to my movement happening right now as I type.

Here’s the thing about Brecht, my favorite one sentence description of him is : Brecht wanted to change your vote. Brecht’s work is about creating a better society. Brecht’s work is about being the change you want to see in the world. And Good Person is no exception. Brecth’s work challenges the audience not to passively enjoy theatre, but to actively do something about the society in which you live – to change what you’re doing and, in more modern words, to be the change you wish to see. The whole point of his works is to point out how flawed society is, and that only we can change it. (Thus, I was very much drawn to the show for today’s blog).

As far as this show itself, I have to say, there were some problems with it as a whole. Believe it or not, I am actually not anti-three hour productions of older plays that were written to be three hours. I am, however, extremely against things that make already long shows longer. For instance, set changes. This production changed the set for every scene (there were 11 of them) as well as flashing the name of the scene on the screen. The problem is that each scene change was at least a minute long, sometimes two, which means that at least 15 minutes, if not closer to 20 was added to the show. Interestingly, I think especially in a piece like Brecht, scene changes are entirely not necessary. For instance, the first scene in which the water seller was going to people houses, those “houses” were signs made of cardboard – pretty classic Brechtain technique – also, effective and short and sweet – and entire world was made in the time it took to raise a sign. One of the more interesting things to me about this choice is the director’s notes in the program that state “once one falls through the rabbit hole of questioning all assumptions, one realizes what it is to read, perform, and watch brecht” Except that isn’t fully what happened, only some theatrical assumptions were challenged. I feel like it could have been a stronger (and much shorter) production if more assumptions were challenged.

I also had some problems with the music in this performance. Music is an integral part of Brecht’s alienation effect. The problem with the music in this production is that it was incomprehensible – as in the octaves that they were singing in were so high that the audience could not understand what they were saying. To fix this, they provided the lyrics in the program. (I have serious problems with the inability to tell a story without program notes. Look, I already wrote about it.) I feel like the musical arrangement was not conducive to Brecht’s point of having the songs in the first place. The inability to understand the lyrics in the context of the show lost both the actual stand that Brecht was trying to make in the lyrics and added length to an already long show. There is never a call to have an audience sit for 3+ minutes listening to something that they cannot understand – especially if the point of the lyrics in the first place is to reinforce the playwright’s ideas of what his play is saying.

Having said all this, it would sound as if I didn’t like the show – in point of fact, I did, very much, like the show. I think it did most things very well. I think it made most of Brecht’s points very well. I think it was clear and understandable. I think it handled most of the alienation techniques very well. To me, the points above stuck out so strongly because the rest of the show was so well done.

Brecht’s epilogue at the end is clearly a call for us to change what is happening in society, to create a society in which it is possible to be both good and live well – and that it is up to us – the audience to effect that change. (To be fair, it is important to remember anytime you are speaking of Brecht that he was a HARDCORE Marxist, and his shows revolve around changing your way of thinking to his. The man wasn’t soft, he wanted a Marxist revolution and believed theatre was a way to propagate the ideas – heck, even his longtime composer and collaborator, Kurt Weill, eventually left him in the end saying something along the lines of: there are only so many times I can put the Communist Manifesto to music. Make no mistake, Brecht's work is not open ended, he very clearly wanted, in all his work, to change your vote - to get you to agree with him.)

What I love about Brecht, even if I am not sure about his actual politics, is that he always questions us about what we are doing. He creates a space in which theatre is part of a larger discussion – it isn’t just 2-3 hours of your life one night, it is your life – and you have to decide how to live it.

I think that is so very important for all of us to remember. And to remember that theatre can be a place for education and change. I would love to see our generation’s Brecht, the person who truly questions what theatre is today, and how to best use it to affect societal change. I wonder who that person will be and what that theatre will look like. It's exciting work to think about!

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