In its opening weekend at the Troutt Theater, the Belmont University theatre and dance department’s performance of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Woman of Setzuan” proved an entertaining show that proves moral complexity and comedy are not mutually exclusive.
The play — originally written at the end of the 1930s — focuses on Shen Te, a prostitute known throughout the dilapidated city of Setzuan as a kind soul.
In the aftermath of a visit from three gods seeking proof good people still exist, Shen Te’s life descends into a struggle between maintaining her altruism and coping with the poverty opposing her at every turn. Along the way, there’s a near-wedding, a fictitious cousin, a trial and lots of questions about the cost and value of selflessness.
One might expect a play dealing with such heavy subject matter might also be a heavy play, but “The Good Woman of Setzuan” clings to an air of lightheartedness, balancing the life-or-death situations of the characters with a thread of not-unpleasant oddity running from the fourth-wall-breaking calls for applause to a wildly dancing grandpa.
The set — which includes the Setzuan city gate, a worn-out car and various refuse — adds to the sense of oppression without overwhelming the action. But as the play fills the stage, it also runs over the edges, with actors running through the aisles of the theater and Twitter posts from the wandering gods appearing in the rafters as they observe the good, the bad and the ugly in their search for others like Shen Te.
Perhaps the most compelling part of the play is the energetic cast portraying the swirling chaos of Setzuan society.
Reilly O’Connell brings an effervescence to her performances as Shen Te and Shui Ta that strikes a stark contrast against the haze of the set, while Joe Mobley serves as an amusing liaison for the crowd, the city and the gods as Wong the water seller. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast adds colorful, cigarette-flicking chaos to the world of Setzuan, adding to the argument for and against Shen Te’s goodness.
Those interested in seeing the play may want to choose a seat toward the middle of the theater in order to fully experience the bonus tweets, and those who are sensitive to smoke or haze might be better off sitting a few rows from the front.
“The Good Woman of Setzuan” will be performed Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Troutt Theater. Tickets are free for students.