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Theater Review

"The Good Woman of Setzuan" ***

Drama directed by Saul Elkin

Continues through Sunday in Drama Theatre, UB Center for the Arts, North Campus, Amherst. 645-ARTS

In "The Good Woman of Setzuan," penned in 1943 in his native German as "Der gute Mensch von Sezuan," Bertolt Brecht made perhaps the boldest of political statements. In the parable, a young Chinese prostitute named Shen Te is visited in her dreams by three gods. The trio's search for goodness on Earth is met by the girl's desire to reform -- and pay her rent and buy food, a challenge not foreign to the modern college student.

Which is why the current production of Brecht's musical parable is perfect on the University at Buffalo stage, directed by distinguished theater professor Saul Elkin.

In Shen Te's quest for goodness, she finds faults in an ideally perfect society. Her efforts to please the gods and her greedy peers lead her down an even more immoral path, hitting the nerve of the playwright's proverbial theme that being "good" in an inherently complex and corrupt society is difficult.

Though the density of Brecht's ethos is overwhelming from the get-go, Elkin has crafted a production that gives Brecht credit where his credit is due. The playwright's theory on theater involved, among other notions, the idea that it is not meant to be interpreted literally. It is a self-evolved, staged world crafted for the audience's temporal enjoyment. It should not be dissected as reflexive statements on their own lives, rather digested as fictional characters in fictional scenarios.

Such a distinction is important to both the staging of a Brecht play and its interpretation.

Elkin takes this parable form and runs with it. After a lengthy prologue introduces Wong (Thomas DeTrinis), a poor water carrier who is our insider, the stage is nearly stripped of all theatrical masking and set devices.

Scenes are played out on the bare stage, brick walls and lighting rigs exposed, with the actors seated on the sides of the stage, watching the action as they wait for their entrance cues. Transitions are made in full view; sets are constructed on the whim with a clever system of rolling platforms and hanging window frames. (Craig Chapman's scenic designs and Laura Kania's lights are triumphs in this all-the-world-is-a-stage school of theater.)

Elkin pits his large cast of uniquely talented actors in an environment where the method of storytelling is equally as pertinent as the story. It not only pays homage to Brecht's ideas of what theater is and should be, it also keeps the essence of the albeit wordy text simple and straightforward.

DeTrinis is a delight to watch as Wong, playing host to the audience more successfully than he sells his water. DeTrinis' flamboyant performance is reminiscent of his show-stopping Pseudolus in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Form" last season. (As fate has it, both roles were originated on Broadway by the great Zero Mostel, who was directed in "The Good Woman of Setzuan" by legendary thespian Eric Bentley. Elkin's friendship with Bentley, who translated Brecht's work for publication, afforded the UB company Bentley's support as unofficial dramaturge, a rare and special treat for these students.)

Amber Abdella is a fine Shen Te, if only occasionally too fast-paced for the adapted text. She loses us in translation a few times in her jumpy performance. Abdella lends beautiful vocals to Stefan Wolpe's score (with additional tunes by Hans Eisler and famous Brecht collaborator Kurt Weill).

The gods, in Chantal Calato's inspired and eye-catching costumes, are humorous and humanlike, whether appearing in Wong's dreams or encroaching upon the small (and fictional) Chinese village. Tim Eimiller, Brian Butera and Steve Stocking are well-suited as the gods, especially Butera, whose occasional perturbed attitude is a refreshing characterization of how god would act in a Brechtian fable.

Jeffrey Coyle as the snippy barber Shu Fu, and Angela Cristantello as the Edith Bunker-like nag of a wife -- named, simply, Wife -- are both standouts in the sizable ensemble; a credit to the department's noteworthy current generation of actors.

There are times when the theatrics seem to take center stage too much, leading the telling of a simplified tale much too complex to decipher. But despite the depth of the material, and given the ample hands of Elkin and Bentley in which the production has been placed, there's far too much to enjoy in this unique production of a truly original piece of theater.

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