Brecht based The Good Woman of Setzuan on an old Chinese tale. He set his 1943 version in a China straddling both past and present, where gods walk the earth and airmail pilots look for work. The characters have Chinese names, but they aren't Chinese; they are us. (Amusingly, a neighborhood cop is here played with an Irish accent.)
Three gods come to Setzuan in what looks like a futile attempt to find one good person; their failure will mean the end of the world as we know it. The sole person who seems to have any potential for goodness is a prostitute named Shen Te; the gods reward her with the money to buy a tobacco shop. Almost immediately, the locals begin to take advantage of Shen Te's good nature, so she creates an alter ego, a male cousin, who can talk tough and make the hard-hearted business decisions. It's Shen Te, of course, who's wearing the trousers, but she feels too soft for the work at hand without her disguise. To her distress, her alter ego begins to take over, complicating her budding relationship with Yang Sun, a suicidal unemployed pilot whose intentions toward Shen Te are not entirely honorable.
After a great deal of trouble and confusion, Shen Te must come clean about her duplicity. The gods are little comfort; they insist that it's up to Shen Te to think and act for herself, to figure out how to define goodness, and how to strive for that goodness in an essentially corrupt society. Rogue Theatre stops the play at a point where this concept seems to crush Shen Te, but her fate isn't really our concern; this is Brecht, after all. The point, an actor tells us face-to-face, is for us to figure it out for ourselves, and if we don't like society, we should go out and change it.
If you're not familiar with Brecht's concepts of epic theater and alienation, or if you are familiar with them and don't like them, you may be put off by Rogue's characteristically fine production, which is true to Brecht's intentions. Most of the acting is a little overdrawn, because Brechtian actors are expected to demonstrate rather than impersonate. They're not supposed to convince us that they're playing real people on that stage; they're urging us, through story, to contemplate society's ills and then go fix them.
Theater is artificial, Brecht doesn't pretend otherwise and Rogue buys into the concept. Most amusing along these lines is director Cynthia Meier's solution to a logistical problem. The gods are played by actors stuffed into wonderful, huge puppets, designed by Matt Cotton of Tucson Puppet Works. It's very difficult for them to bend over and slip through the bare frame representing the door to Shen Te's home, so at one point Shen Te simply pulls the frame aside so the god-puppet can proceed uninhibited.
Meier has her actors keep an appropriate Brechtian distance from naturalism, but she doesn't distance them from the story's emotional content. As Shen Te, the appealing Patty Gallagher explores more shades of puzzlement, insecurity and forthrightness than anyone knew existed. Martie van der Voort not only has all the necessary energy as Wong, the waterseller who doubles as an almost-narrator, but in subtle ways she comes close to making us believe that Wong herself could turn out to be an alternate Good Woman of Setzuan. J. Andrew McGrath does the neat trick of drawing out our sympathy and then pushing it away, again and again, as the unreliable pilot. James Mousigian is nicely oily as a neighbor with designs on Shen Te, Jill Baker stands out as one of the gods and as a neighborhood boy, and the rest of the very large cast also acquits itself well.
Music is almost always an important component of Rogue productions. Here, the local Summer Thunder Chinese Music Ensemble performs a fine set of traditional pieces in the 15 minutes before curtain time. During the play itself, music director Harlan Hokin has revived the quite different score by Brecht associate Stefan Wolpe, who is best known for his distinctive atonal concert music. For this play, though, Wolpe wrote a somewhat more accessible string of angular and chromatic little songs and choruses for the actors, who deliver them as Brecht expected: as actors who sing, not as seasoned vocalists.
More than 60 years after its premiere, The Good Woman of Setzuan still offers us plenty to mull over. Can't women, even now, get to the top of the business ladder without acting like men? Why in our society is the only thing worse for one's reputation than being a prostitute to be poor? And who gets to define goodness, anyway? Mull as long as you want, but remember that as far as Brecht is concerned, the play isn't over until you work to improve society. Rogue Theatre can't do that, but it does an excellent job at what it can on the other side of the footlights.