The Good Person of Szechwan — Bertolt Brecht's fable of a kind-hearted hooker forced to disguise herself as a hard-hearted pimp in order to survive the predations of her underclass peers — has been approved for college curricula since the 1960s at least, making Die Gute Mensch von Sezuan one of the prolific author's most-produced plays. (Formerly known as “The Good Woman of Setzuan,” the gender-neutral "mensch" is nowadays more often translated as "Good Person.")
Many of Brecht's conceptual affectations (notably, his faux-Chinese motifs) have given way over the decades to more nuanced interpretations, but one factor remaining constant from its premiere in 1943 to the present day — with one exception in 2013 — is the casting of a female actor as the cross-dressing protagonist. Cor Theater intends to change that convention in its production, however. Taking on the dual identity of the gentle Shen Te and the steely Shui Ta is company member Will Von Vogt.
Why has it taken more than 70 years for men to attempt this role? Are theatergoers more comfortable with women playing men than vice-versa? Are all prostitutes automatically assumed to be female? Is a tough, businesslike demeanor considered an exclusively masculine trait? Was self-proclaimed radical Brecht adhering (if inadvertently) to conventional stereotypes?
Cor director Ernie Nolan addressed these questions to Windy City Times. He said, "People forget that Brecht was, first and foremost, a theatrical artist. Again and again, he would use 'foreign' settings in order to, not simply replicate, but to explore what was on the stage. Our Szechwan is an urban, industrial, multicultural environment—not unlike India, or Haiti, or, yes, like Chicago today, with all the sexual diversity inherent to that environment."
So why aren't male actors cast as Shen Te more often? "We talked at length about people who live on the fringes of society," Nolan recalled. "Shen Te is someone to be exploited by everybody else. She isn't supposed to find love — or even know it exists. In our own world, where gay men die simply for being who they are, this seemed the right play to raise these issues."
Will Von Vogt concurred, saying, "I don't think Brecht ever intended to affirm the status quo, but to highlight the notion that we all carry masculine and feminine traits within us, whether or not we are free to fully express them. This balance is what allows me, a gay man, to physicalize this connection that makes us human."
Many recent plays have featured leading roles for men in drag: Hit The Wall, Charm, Kinky Boots, etc. However, although Von Vogt said he sees no indication of male actors incorporating "movement in high heels" into their training regimen, he had nothing but praise for writers ("two of them from Chicago") who are creating roles promoting broader representation of gender identities. He also admitted to relishing the interplay between Shen Te and Shui Ta, confessing, "There are moments when I've felt alienated by both [of the characters]."
Brecht's much-analyzed didactic approach to his arguments might seem an odd match to Cor Theater's trademark emotion-fueled viscerality, but Nolan said he sees no contradiction in the two principles. Brecht himself, asserted Nolan, repeatedly declared the Epic Theater's critical attitude "passionate" — passion being a quality that Kushner's translation emphasizes and that Cor Theater conveys with unquestionable confidence, according to Nolan. "Brecht's artistic and social message is at the center of what we [Cor] do and why we do it," he said.
Asked what sort of audience response they anticipate, Nolan shrugs, "It's easy to say that in an election year, every play becomes about the election, but what I hope is for the playgoers to leave with a new appreciation of Brecht's genius," while Von Vogt adds, "We are taking this classic work, its elements already resonating in today's political climate, and we are infusing it with Cor's boldness and conviction. I can't wait for people to come and reflect on the universe we show them."