'Good Woman': Smartly Dressed

Shen Te (Katie Atkinson) is what the gods are looking for in Brecht's
Shen Te (Katie Atkinson) is what the gods are looking for in Brecht's "The Good Woman of Setzuan." (By Joseph Allen -- Constellation Theatre Company)
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By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 3, 2008

The three figures might have waltzed in straight from a Peking opera: They wear satiny, tasseled costumes in red, green, gold and pink, and their painted faces give them a deceptive air of ferocity.

They're the obstinate, virtue-seeking gods of Bertolt Brecht's "The Good Woman of Setzuan," and they're roaming the Clark Street Playhouse courtesy of Constellation Theatre Company, an ambitious troupe still in its first season.

Under the smart direction of Allison Arkell Stockman and aided by costumer Yvette M. Ryan and other canny creatives, a 20-person cast is rollicking through Brecht's single-minded parable, making it colorful and stylized -- rather like the garb worn by its trio of deities.

Written at the beginning of World War II (and translated, in this version, by Eric Bentley), "Good Woman" deals with the fallout from a sort of "American Idol"-style contest -- for goodness, though, rather than talent. As the three gods wander the Earth to audition the selfless, their only viable candidate, the sweet prostitute-turned-tobacco-merchant Shen Te (Katie Atkinson), finds herself so cash-strapped and vulnerable that she must don a disguise. She masquerades as Shui Ta, a steely male entrepreneur who brooks no nonsense from anyone, whether it be the greedy Setzuan residents or the opportunistic pilot Yang Sun (Ron Ward), whom Shen Te loves.

Portraying these shifty, fallible folks, Stockman's actors adopt exaggerated mannerisms reminiscent of a melodrama or a silent movie -- an approach that adds flair without wholly jeopardizing the distancing effect that is de rigueur in Brechtland. As the haughty landlady Mrs. Mi Tzu, Katy Carkuff struts and poses like a fashion model, showing off her legs through the slit skirt of her turquoise gown. And as the water seller Wong, Ashley Ivey hobbles around in rags, a grimy-faced simpleton.

Even a tiny role such as the Unemployed Man (Joe Thornhill) has been brewed strong: As he cadges free tobacco from Shen Te, he scratches himself frantically, as if infected with lice. As for the eponymous heroine, she's sometimes bouncy, sometimes anxious and never too saccharine.

There's ample room for these personages on A.J. Guban's capacious set, dominated by the red-and-black, barrackslike building that houses Shen Te's tobacco store. Over to the side, a tropical tree grows from a sandy hillside, looking like an illustration from a children's book. Guban has also designed the lighting, which pinpoints or unites the large space as needed, and sometimes turns golden, as if to underscore the characters' financial angst.

The environment acquires another dimension from composer Tom Teasley's moodily textured, percussion-rich underscoring, part New Age eeriness and part gong-sounding chinoiserie. Teasley also contributes music for Brecht's song lyrics and for a couple of choreographic sequences, including a creditable tai-chi-paced fan dance (actor Ivey is the choreographer).

Despite such carnivalesque elements, and despite the comedy, "Good Woman" drags a tad in its last half-hour. Another flaw during this section comes as Catherine Deadman, John Geoffrion and Kenny Littlejohn, who depict the gods, overact the long-questing immortals' pained exhaustion.

Admittedly, though, it must be hard to convey nuance through all that face paint -- and perfection, like goodness, is hard to achieve.

The Good Woman of Setzuan, by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Eric Bentley. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman; sound design, Chris Baine. With Lisa Lias, Jenny Leopold, Kevin Finkelstein and others. About 2 1/2 hours. Through April 20 at the Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington. Call 800-494-8497 (for tickets) or 202-280-8101 (for information), or visit

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