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Theater review: 'The Good Woman of Setzuan' by Open Fist

July 2, 2010 |  1:00 pm

GoodWomanThe pulse of the tango insinuates itself into a Chinese opera. A British comedy erupts in the midst of a bunraku performance. Guatemalan cloth brushes up against Oriental silk.

These are but a few of the cultural mash-ups on view in Open Fist's presentation of "The Good Woman of Setzuan," complementing the source material in wondrous ways. Bertolt Brecht's play is, after all, its own mash-up: a parable in the guise of a Chinese folk tale, written while Brecht, a German Marxist, hopscotched the globe in exile from the Nazis.

A moral dilemma bubbles at the play's core: Can a person do good in the world -- assisting others clearly in need -- while also safeguarding one's personal comfort?  That question loomed in collective consciousness when the play was written between 1939 and 1941, and hovers there still.

If that seems strong stuff, fear not. Director Charles Otte and his cohorts keep us engaged and, yes, entertained, even if that seems somewhat counter to Brecht's belief in distancing.

Movement and performance vocabularies -- a global tour of cultures and techniques -- overlap in Otte's theatrically polyglot presentation. He uses a recently revised translation by Eric Bentley as well as a smattering of songs that Elizabeth Swados once wrote for the play. The music, itself a mini-world-tour, is made all the more transporting by Dean Mora and his musicians.

A raw-lumber set and monumental projections make Setzuan seem industrious, if austere. Among its citizens is the bubbling, sparkling Shen Te (Lauren Lovett, leading a cast of 20), whose kindness convinces three worried gods that at least one good person still inhabits the Earth. Once she has a bit of money, however, she finds it necessary to disguise herself as a brusque male cousin to shoo away the needy. And so the great moral divide is made visible.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"The Good Woman of Setzuan,"Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. (No performance this Sunday.) Ends July 17. $25. (323) 882-6912 or Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Photo: Lauren Lovett, right, portrays Shen Te, whose kindness eases the fears of three gods played by Katherine Griffith, Alexander Wright and Robert George. Credit: Tom Burruss.