Even for those who don’t know his plays or have never seen them performed, Bertolt Brecht is known as an artist who wanted to make his audiences aware that they were watching something staged. At the performance I saw of this Brecht play at La MaMa, the battered Shen Tei (Taylor Mac) was pleading for help in front of three divine judges (Vinie Burrows, Annie Golden and Mia Katigbak) when one of the judge’s robes caught on fire. Smoke rose behind them and stagehands ran to put the fire out. The fire alarm went off and the theater was evacuated, but the audience still lingered while firemen came to make sure everything was all right. As we took our seats again, Mac came forward and said he felt that the ghost of La MaMa founder Ellen Stewart might have caused the fire and alarm for dramatic emphasis. And then Mac got right back into character and stood there defenseless before the judges, all three of them gods but also hypocritical bureaucrats who don’t mind a little cooking of the books as long as everything looks the way it should.
The fire on stage and the resumption of the performance were quite satisfyingly Brechtian, but this production is otherwise pretty where it should be dirty, soothing where it should be wounding. There is fine work from many of the actors, particularly Lisa Kron in two roles, a contrasting pair of female archetypes (sexually repressed landlady and Long Island yenta), and the puckish David Turner as Wang, a water seller whose hand is made lame by a mean rich man. Mac himself is sensitive and intelligent in his depictions of Shen Tei’s tart-with-a-heart decency and the corruption of her alter ego, Shui Ta, who behaves like a heartless capitalist and builds an exploitative factory all so Shen Tei can have her baby by her faithless lover Yang Sun (Clifton Duncan).
Mac is a fine actor, and something in his performing style sharpens and intensifies when he can put emotions across musically; during one musical number, in which Shen Tei changes from her red dress into the suit of Shui Ta, Mac channels a powerful vein of righteous anger. Overall, however, this production is too much a cheerful gesture toward Brecht’s drama, as if everyone involved here really loved the play and was having a great time putting it on, but no one was focused enough to really make it hurt the way it should. After I left the theater, waiting for the subway, there was a skinny girl on the platform in a floppy gray hat singing tunelessly and hopelessly, a cardboard coffee cup in front of her. As I looked at her and listened, and tried not to look and listen, I felt everything that a pitiless production of Brecht’s play should make you feel, and it was far removed from my pleasant experience at La MaMa.
Photo by Pavel Antonov