BACK STAGE WEST
July 02, 1998
at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
Nothing quite goes together in Ron Sossi's new revival of Brecht's diverting moral fable The Good Woman of Setzuan (in Ralph Manheim's translation). The cast is an uneasy grab bag of leering, larger-than-life silent film heavies, sassy sketch-comedy foils, ragged story-theatre mannequins, manic commedia clowns, and edgily contemporary toughs. Denise and C. Juliette Blasor's costumes and Alycia Rosenberg's props are a similar mix of elegant chinoiserie and telling anachronism, while Stephanie Marra's set, roughly and sparely adorned by Ian Tresselt, is a rusty, corrugated cutaway affair on wheels, with protruding girders, cold swatches of chain-link, and catwalks that shudder metallically.
Only Sean Paxton's score, a darkly enchanting parlor brew of Weill and Eisler, and the performance of lead actress Beth Hogan, who suggests a different sort of silent film from the Keystone heavies around her--she's something out of Dreyer or Lang, not Sennett--are consistent threads throughout.
This is all as it should be, more or less, with Brecht and his "theatre of alienation." Our direct emotional involvement with Shen Te (Hogan)--the impossibly beatific protagonist singled out by the gods as a test case for human goodness, who is pointedly thwarted and beaten down at every turn--is disrupted often enough by the show's jarring changes of tone, its sudden song interludes, and its blunt cynicism that we're brought up short in precisely the way Brecht intended. When a production is as sure and as sharp as Sossi's mostly is, this "alienation" has an emotional impact ultimately greater and deeper than simple realism.
Sossi profitably milks the contrasts in performance style--between, say, the naturalistic Paul Vroom, as Shen Te's opportunistic lover, and Hogan's desolate-pixie pantomime; between Donna Pieroni's low-slung landlady and Barry Cutler's livewire petit bourgeois; between Vincent J. Isaac's touchingly dissipated hobo and Judith Jordan's broadly sympathetic Mrs. Shin; between the antic/pathetic clowning of Alan Abelew and the dry vaudeville vulgarity of the gods (Isaac, Kent Minault, and Carl J. Johnson--craven images, all of them). But Sossi also handily subsumes this disparate troupe into a convincing ensemble, especially in the striking tableau of Shen Te's wedding fiasco. With Doc Ballard's lighting bearing down and Paxton's music farting ironically, it's a nicely Grosz image that disintegrates with heartbreaking rancor.
If the acting is uneven (not only in style but in quality and commitment); if Hogan's vocal equipment seems thinner than required, especially when she assumes the disguise of Shen Te's pragmatic alter ego, Shui Ta; if Abelew, as quasi-narrator Wong, pushes too desperately hard at times for both pathos and aw-shucks humor--these problems are also subsumed in the greater project of Brecht's play and Sossi's production. These are two artists who do go together quite well.
"The Good Woman of Setzuan," presented by and at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Bvld., West L.A. June 20-Aug. 2. (310) 477-2055.