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The Good Woman of Setzuan - St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School - Alexandria, Virginia - November 11, 2016

Mary Margaret Chalk

Langley High School

“No one can be good and stay good”

In a culture of impoverished city dwellers and hungry families, survival matters most—often even more than human goodness. St. Stephens and St. Agnes School confronts the grave difficulty of ensuring a balance of both doing well for oneself and living well for a greater-good in its thoughtful production of The Good Woman of Setzuan.

Written by Bertolt Brecht in 1941, The Good Woman of Setzuan possesses a strong degree of ambiguity regarding its setting and period, leaving interpretation up to the audience. This same ambiguity is present throughout the actions of Shen Te, a generous woman who doubles as a prostitute and is the focal point of the story. Shen Te, called “the angel of the slums” by multiple neighbors, takes in the homeless, gives more than she has means to give, and tries to believe in the goodness of others. Her own goodness, however, leads those surrounding her to take advantage of her kindness. In defense of herself, Shen Te takes on the disguise of a cold man called Shui Ta to carry out business requiring a firm hand. Shen Te’s embodiment of two conflicting personas is symbolic of a greater dilemma that questions what defines a human as “good” in the first place.

Rather than full lights opening the show to brightly illuminate a set, shadows consumed the stage during the first moments the city of Setzuan came to life. The murkiness of these shadows remained throughout the story, as choices between right and wrong would hold no definitive answer.

Dedication of actors was crucial to the show’s success. Shen Te, played by Sasha Koch, provided vulnerability and drive to the story. Koch handled the transition from the kind Shen Te to the frigid Shui Ta with ease and nuance making Shen Te’s reluctance to become a person of selfishness subtly apparent. A water seller named Wong (Julia Burke) reflected on lessons of both Shen Te’s and the community’s current situation through direct narration. Burke’s frustration and fear bubbled out of character’s tattered persona and helped to evoke sympathy from every audience member. To contrast the serious nature of most characters, a wife (Audrey Shaw) and husband (Sam Stevens) latched onto Shen Te in a parasitic, yet humorous way. Stevens took the stage with conviction and Shaw consistently displayed facetious mannerisms casting a light on the otherwise dark emotional atmosphere. Although there were some pacing issues with line delivery, actors routinely spoke with clarity making up for some slow timing.

Special effects added tremendously to the nature of Setzuan. The stage was complete with a perfectly placed contraption that made actual rain during some of the gloomiest times of character struggles. The beauty of the soft drizzle was accompanied by a creative set that used rotating boards as doors and windows that added to the setting’s ambiguity and minimalism. Live music further encapsulated the audience in the ambience of scenes. The technical team’s efforts made The Good Woman of Setzuan an artful experience.

Today’s society is captivated with worries of material nature. We are all guilty of forgetting to prioritize a greater good as what matters most. St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes successfully reminded its audience of the importance of forgetting oneself for a moment to search for goodness and better the lives of those within reach.

Neeka Smimi

Washington Lee High School

Good versus evil--the world’s greatest struggle. It also happens to be the central theme of Bertolt Brecht’s play The Good Woman of Setzuan. St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes’s production of this show was electrifying. The stage was alight with moral dilemmas and an ultimately positive argument in favor of humanity.

The titular good woman of Setzuan is a prostitute named Shen Te. Although it seems as if her profession would prevent her from being pure, the three gods who visit Setzuan see the kindness in Shen Te’s heart. So, they give her money to open a tobacco shop, hoping she’ll stay true to her morals. This is what she does, even when the people around her take advantage of her generosity. To look out for herself, Shen Te assumes the alter ego of Shui Ta, who is supposedly her cousin. When things go awry, Shen Te is faced with the question of how to protect herself while helping others. Of course, such dilemmas are timeless, remaining relevant now, over seventy years after the play was written.

The production stayed true to Brecht’s “Epic Theatre,” breaking the fourth wall with gusto. The actors approached their roles with commanding stage presence. Technical aspects of the show were truly mesmerizing and incredibly creative. The set, in particular, was very striking and impressive. The addition of original piano and flute music added a lyrical flow to the production.

The actors of this production should be commended for their ability to fully embody their three-dimensional characters. Shen Te is a complicated character, and Sasha Koch did an excellent job of portraying the fiercely kind-hearted woman. Chemistry among all actors was believable and intense--one notable example of this was between Shen Te and her love interest, Yang Sun (Christian Corpening).

The entire cast lit up the stage. Comical moments of the show came courtesy of the lively Mrs. Shin (Gabby Sullivan), and the Husband (Sam Stevens) and Wife (Audrey Shaw). Unfortunately, due to the philosophical nature of Brechtian theater and the show’s intentional awareness of the fourth wall, some lines of dialogue felt forced. However, the cast made up for this by their commanding stage presence. The acting was impressive in that all actors were sympathetic. The play unfolds to explain that no person is inherently bad. Those who become bad do so out of necessity, an idea very well-conveyed in the show.

Technical aspects of the show were truly marvelous and incredibly creative. The minimalist set had dynamic uses in every scene. Wooden pallets representing doors hung from corners of the stage. The imposing wooden floor jutted out from the stage itself. Costumes and makeup were delicate and bohemian, featuring bold, bright colors. The show-stopping facet, however, was certainly the rain. Water poured down from the ceiling through a PVC tube, collecting into an imperceptible gutter on the side of the stage. This immersed the audience into the show. The lighting was moody and symbolic, cleverly using warm colors to portray Shen Te as sympathetic, and colder colors to detach us from the gods.

In short, St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School’s production of The Good Woman of Setzuan was remarkable because of its stunning visuals as well as its stark portrayal of goodness. Its persistently optimistic portrayal of the human spirit was inspiring.


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