|Francesca Fernandez McKenzie (center) as Shen Te disguises herself as her male cousin, Shui Ta, who gets tough with characters played by Margo Hall (left) and Lily Tung Crystal. (Photo by Kevin Berne)
The central character in German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 “The Good Person of Szechwan” faces an apparently unsolvable dilemma: After the gods reward her for her goodness, others take advantage of her, thus negating her good intentions.
California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Eric Ting helms his company’s production using Tony Kushner’s adaptation.
In it, the kind-hearted Shen Te (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) disguises herself as her tough-minded male cousin, Shui Ta, to ward off the spongers.
One of them is Yang Sun (Armando McClain), who’s about to hang himself because he doesn’t have the money to pay for a promised job as an air mail pilot in Peking.
She not only gives him some money but also falls in love with him. However, in her male guise, she learns that he was mainly interested in her for the money and the sex.
Under Ting’s direction, McKenzie is the undisputed star of this production, but everyone in the 12-member cast works as a true ensemble. Most actors assume several roles, both male and female, yet every character is clearly etched.
For example, Anthony Fusco, Victor Talmadge, Phil Wong and Margo Hall all show their versatility. Lance Gardner plays Shen Te’s friend Wang, the Water-Seller, who opens the show, leads the gods to her, delivers the epilogue and takes part in other scenes.
Adding immeasurably to enjoyment of this production is Brendan Aanes’ sound design, which often punctuates various lines and actions.
Ulises Alcala’s costumes are a mix of traditional and contemporary, while the set by Michael Locher and lighting by Jiyoun Chang also augment the action.
Some movements, especially by McKenzie’s Shui Ta, are stylized thanks to movement choreographer Natalie Greene.
At times one or more characters will break into songs written by music director Min Kahng.
All of this is part of the Brechtian aim of trying to distance the audience, of showing that this is merely a play.
Nevertheless, the acting and direction are so brilliant that it’s almost impossible not to be swept up by what’s unfolding on the stage.
Running about three hours with one intermission, “The Good Person of Szechwan” will continue through July 28 at the scenic Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (off Hwy. 24), Orinda.
For tickets and information, call (510) 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.