Good Person of Setzuan

First, I must confess, I did not enjoy The Good Person of Setzuan, by German playwright Bertolt Brecht. When I go to theatre, I want to be immersed in the story, empathize with the characters, and leave with an emotional twinge of something. “They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel”, said fellow German Carl W. Buehner, almost a century later. None of that happened in this play.
Now, I will tell you why Exit 22’s production is, nonetheless, worth attending. In order to appreciate director Stuart Aikins’ re-imagined take, you must understand the distinct style of a Brecht play. Being a fundamental Marxist, Brecht’s plays focus on materialism and how although emotional passion serves humanity, it is neither practical nor sustainable without resources.

Good Person of Setzuan
[Michael Dean Henderson, Tyler Richardson]

He espoused a genre dubbed “epic theatre” in which the audience’s feelings are intentionally divorced from the plot or characters. Using the principle of Verfremdungseffekt (translated as “distancing effect”), he aimed to provoke spectators into critically examining the social problems presented in his works, rather than attaching unproductive sentimentalities to fictional personalities. 

To achieve this, Brecht plays used various techniques to ensure the audience is fully conscious that they are only observing a representation of reality, a reality that they have the power to change. There are many disjointed elements: actors addressing the house directly in the midst of a scene; an interpolation of songs interrupting the action; scene projections on the walls; actors overtly rearranging the scene; harsh, glaring lights; and finally, no satisfactory or “neat” conclusions. Through all this, the presentation of the problem remains the pivotal focus rather than the plot or any of the characters. 

Good Person of Setzuan
[Kimberly Ma, Gavin Langelo, Rory Knowler]
All familiarity and expectations I longed for in many contemporary productions were absent from this play – this is exactly what Brecht had intended – and exactly how Exit 22 performed it, using Tony Kushner’s English adaptation.
The Good Person of Setzuan is a parable. Its lesson is clearly laid out in the title: How is it possible for a person to remain good, in a world that rewards evil? Wang, the water seller, has knowledge that three gods will visit the village of Setzuan in search of “good” people to restore their faith in humanity. When the gods arrive, they seek shelter for the night, but are repeatedly refused by everyone except young prostitute Shen Te (Nina Tischhauser), who “can’t say no to anyone”.

Good Person of Setzuan
[Brenden Dell, Nina Tischhauser]

Te is embarrassed by her profession. In a selfless act, she turns away a potential client in order to host the gods. For her hospitality, and also as a test, she is reward with a $1,000. Shen Te uses the money to buy a tobacco shop, with renewed hope of a better life. However, her destitute and homeless neighbourhood follow to her shop’s door. 

Even before the shop opens, it’s overrun with moochers, whom, due to her goodness, she cannot turn away. Compounding her inability to help everyone, she is beset by a carpenter demanding payment, her landlady enforcing advance rent, and an opportunistic scoundrel who she falls in love with and becomes pregnant from. 

Good Person of Setzuan
[Nina Tischhauser, Jamie Lawson, Alexa Houle]

Unable to keep the promises she makes to all those who abuse her goodness, Shen Te invents a “cousin” called Shui Ta, called upon each time Shen Te encounters a dire situation. He is the polar opposite of Shen Te – pragmatic, efficient, and ruthless. He scatters the vagrants from the shop, fleeces the carpenter for his honest work, and elicits the cooperation of the landlady by promising Shen Te to the wealthy butcher next door. 

As her desire and generosity multiply, so do her problems and Shen Te has to call upon Shui Ta with increased frequency. Towards the end, the “cousin” persona completely takes over, demonstrating that altruism cannot survive in the harsh light of reality. The gods make one final appearance at Shui Ta’s trail, where he is accused of imprisoning the missing Shen Te. 

Once Shen Te reveals that she was forced to don the alter ego in order to survive, the gods neither chastise her for straying from goodness, nor do they offer any help for mankind. Shen Te is left begging on the stage while the gods retreat. 

Good Person of Setzuan
[The Ensemble surrounds Nina Tischhauser]
Aikins has chosen to modernize the play by recreating a sullied environment simulating the back alleys of the city’s Downtown Eastside. However, he has not chosen to update the place, character names, or stilted dialogue, thus maintaining the “unnatural” quality of the piece.  

Right from the outset, the audience is made aware they are spectators. The curtains raise to show an empty stage – welcome to the theatre. Then a second curtain raises – welcome to the show. Connor Moore’s hard-featured stage is revealed, with glaring graffiti, impassible barricades, overturned shopping carts, and randomly strewn garbage. 

While emulating reality, the overstated fences establish an obvious alienation. Throughout the show, actors break out in monologue, video projections are splattered on the walls, and the cast belt out tunes with no congruent motif (Marguerite Witvoet). 

Good Person of Setzuan
[Brenden Dell]

A homeless shanty, a sad-core ditty, a ballad, a rock refrain, and a Bollywood number all find refuge in this production. The cast is composed mostly of relative newcomers to the stage and Brecht’s play is a prime starter. The work is mammoth in scale and nearly every character has a few meaty lines. 

The aptly-cast performers “look” the part under the coordination of costumer Kim Bothren. The water seller clutches a well-used Canadian Tire bottle, the butcher sports a dirty, blood-smeared apron, and the neighbourly older couple is stereotypically foreign. 

Good Person of Setzuan
[Nina Tischhauser, Natalie Backerman]

The epic theatre style demands actors assume their character’s form without losing themselves in the personalities. Brecht’s style is influenced by Chinese opera which is overtly elaborate, overexaggerated, and acutely surreal. 

Here the Exit 22 production could adopt some pointers. Because the roles were intentionally two-dimensional, a bit of over-acting to highlight the character flaws would reinforce the theme. Some onstage movements were lethargic and awkward, creating too much lull in scenes. 

Good Person of Setzuan
[Nina Tischhauser, Rory Knowler, Gavin Langelo]

While all performances could use a bit of tightening up, Shen Te could be more languishing; her lover Yang Sun could be more rakish, the neighbours more pitiful, and the gods more flamboyant. 

This bleak, depressing play drags on for over three hours thus can benefit from speedier exchanges amongst the actors. The lessons are obvious and feel repetitive. However, what this rendition lacks in oomph and snap, it compensates in adherence to technique. At the conclusion, spectators are sufficiently disconnected from emotional bondage to the story. 

In a flash of absurd Bollywood dancing, the gods abandon Shen Te and the question is dropped in the audience’s lap: How will you react to this injustice?

Good Person of Setzuan
[Taran Kootenhayoo, Catherine English, Michael Dean Henderson, Tyler Richardson]
Exit 22’s The Good Person of Setzuan is unlike most shows on the playbill this time of year. If you like experimental, critical theatre, this show is for you. Performances run on select dates until November 22. Due to the length of the production, opt to park in the lower lot at Capilano College, where rates are lower.

Photos by Nate D. Photography.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.


  • Comment by Tyler Richardson — November 19, 2014 @ 8:48 pm

    Hello Cora,
    Thank you so much for the review and coming to see our show. As I was reading I noticed that you mistakenly labelled the role of God Stephen as being played by another actor (George Hart) when it was played by myself (Tyler Richardson). You must have been given an older cast list as I replaced him quite early in the rehearsal process.

    Thank you again,
    Tyler Richardson

  • Comment by Ariane Colenbrander — November 19, 2014 @ 10:41 pm

    Hi Tyler,

    Ariane here. Thanks for checking out our review. The two photos in question have been updated with your name!

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