Playwright: Bertolt Brecht
At: Big Picture Group at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport
Phone: 773-935-6860; $10-$15
Runs through: July 29
BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE
Don't be fooled by the title. Pre-revolutionary China's remote Szechwan province has no more to do with Bertolt Brecht's 1943 play than Prohibition-era Chicago with Happy End or the Hundred Years' War with Mother Courage. His heroine—the young prostitute, Shen Te, whose kindness toward the incognito 'Illustrious Ones' is rewarded by money enabling her to abandon her sordid career and open a small shop—suffers the same trials as businesswomen the world over. No sooner does she adopt a 'legitimate' lifestyle than she is beset by a hoard of swindlers, beggars and assorted freeloaders, including the obligatory handsome-but-shiftless boyfriend, so that she is forced to adopt an alternative identity—the ruthless male cousin, Shui Ta—to deal with these parasitic oppressors.
Unlike the Illustrious Ones, however, the real stars of this Big Picture Group production are never seen by the audience. They are the engineers—in particular, video designer Andrew Schneider, sound designer David Getzin and lighting designer Margaret Hartmann—who keep the high-tech effects coming with dazzling precision to make the most of a nearly-bare stage dominated by a barricade of television monitors locating us environmentally and thematically, flanked by a blank wall on which nocturnal visions are projected. Also contributing hugely to the kaleidoscopic ambience are Erin Liston's anime-based costumes; Daphne McCoy and Shannon Welling's Bollywood/hip-hop dance choreography; and whoever keeps the batteries recharged in the toy cars that convey the Celestial Messengers onstage.
With such abundant mechanical and conceptual spectacles, you'd almost think actors would be extraneous. But Brecht's didactic lehrstücke requires more than clever special effects for successful rehydration, and director Roger Bechtel is lucky to have in his cast Simone Roos playing the long-suffering Shen Te/Shui Ta, along with Beth Stelling as Wang the water-seller, who guides us through our story with irrepressible charm from the moment that she pops out from the video-grid like a mischievous elf ( though Jeremy Schaefer wins our hearts in the role of Shu Fu, the lovestruck butcher come a-courting ) . Assisted by an ensemble of uniform exuberance, if varying expertise, they command our intellectual and emotional attention throughout this lesson in capitalistic economics and establishment-approved theology right up to its predictably pessimistic conclusion, at which time Wang challenges us to find a solution to the destructive unhappiness engendered by poverty. Well? Have you got one?