‘The Good Person of Sezuan’ on stage

Cast tackles controversial material, rises to brilliance in spring play

Photo by Mary Elizabeth Fair
Students in the Flagler Theatre Dept. rehearse for their performances of “The Good Person of Sezuan.” Shows begin Feb. 26 in the Flagler College Auditorium. Student tickets are $5.

By Emily Hoover | gargoyle@flagler.edu

As denizens of St. Augustine feel colder temperatures, the Flagler College Theatre Department is heating up for Spring. They will present “The Good Person of Sezuan.”

The play, written by world renowned German playwright Bertolt Brecht, adapted by Tony Kushner, and directed by Andrea McCook, promises to evoke a response from its audience. It centers on the duality of good and evil and challenges viewers to explore the relativity behind “being a good person.”

Without giving a reply, or making a lame generalization, Brecht’s aim is to cause his viewers to think, and therefore, make their own decisions. As a result, they will choose their own morality.
Set in the Chinese province of Sezuan, the play begins with the coming of three gods (played by Gabe Jacobs-Kierstein, Maggie Ballard and Kia Miller), who endlessly search for someone who they feel is a “good person,” by their standards. The only one who can be found is Shen Te (Liz Bernstein), who, although caring and charitable, is, ironically, a prostitute.

In order to maintain her goodness, the three gods bestow upon her the needed funds to have a comfortable life without prostitution. In return, she vows to be good to everyone she meets, including her family, neighbors, and fellow citizens as well as her lover and her child.
However, this proves impossible and Shen Te is plagued by those who try to destroy her; she is forced to create an alter ego, the imaginary cousin Shui Ta, who serves as her protector from the evil in the world.

Although this play is set in China, a culture that is very different from that of the United States, director Andrea McCook, who has been involved in an estimated 15 productions at Flagler, including “The Servant of Two Masters” and “The Rainmaker,” feels that this play focuses on issues that are central to any culture or society.

“For us, it started with doing a Brecht play, because he has definite style,” said McCook, who also teaches public speaking, history, performance, directing and acting at Flagler. “His work is heavily stylized and political. We looked at his other plays, such as “Mother Courage,” but that requires a lot of male actors. “The Good Person of Sezuan,” a very well-known play, has a great variety of roles; we have 30 people in the cast. There are many opportunities for women.”

In addition to many opportunities for women, this play also comes equipped with its share of complications. Because it has many monologues, difficult characters and dares the audience to think for themselves, learning lines as well as keeping the production free of any moral ambiguity has been strenuous.

“It is really more about Brecht challenging societal ideas of responsibility, without advocating a solution,” McCook adds. “The distancing effect is one of his techniques; it reminds people that this is a play, so they can observe objectively without getting emotionally involved. They then make their own decisions about solutions.”

Sophomore Liz Bernstein, a theatre arts major, who plays Shen Te, has also found some struggles of her own as an actress, even though she is excited for the play’s debut.

“This definitely wasn’t a piece of cake,” she said. “But, Andrea coordinated easy rehearsals. This play was complicated; it’s the longest play I’ve ever done, running, without intermission, about two and a half hours. I’m onstage for most of that time, which is an epic experience.”

While the cast and crew have faced many obstacles, internally and externally, they also share a bond; it is, as McCook says, “a good collaboration.”

Freshman Sarah Berland, who plays the old woman, has had a grand time preparing for the production. “It was so great to get to learn from Andrea in the company of my friends,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Similarly, junior Alicia Goodman, who portrays Mrs. Yang, feels lucky to be included in a group of such talented individuals.

“It is a blend of creative juices,” she said. “Everyone brings something different to the table.”
As this play blurs the line of goodness and calls for much strength, it will surely be a treat for the audience. If anything, viewers can expect to see Bernstein in a different light.

“This is different from anything I’ve ever done,” she said with a smile. “I usually play strong characters. Shen Te is so young and humble. I am more familiar with her transformation. It’s interesting when she creates Shui Ta, who is strong and demanding.”

Whether viewers attend this play to learn about a different culture, or to explore the concept of universal goodness, McCook is excited. She feels that, although “The Good Person of Sezuan” is the most technical and complex play she has done, it offers something for everyone.

“Brecht set this play in China so the audience can distance themselves and look in,” she explained. “That, in itself, is enough for audience members to relate to, especially in these economic times. Plus, the kids are cute.”

There will be a review performance for students and staff in the Flagler College Auditorium on Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5. Feb. 27, 28, March 6 and 7 performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinees, on March 1 and 6, begin at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 for students, $8 for staff and $10 for general admission. Box office hours are 12 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, beginning Feb. 23. For more information, call the box office at (904) 826-8600.

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