Bertolt Brecht's Human Touch

Constellation's 'Good Woman of Setzuan' Isn't About Isms

Katie Atkinson is Shen Te, the title character, and Ron Ward is Yang Sun in
Katie Atkinson is Shen Te, the title character, and Ron Ward is Yang Sun in "The Good Woman of Setzuan." (By Joseph Allen)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 9, 2008; Page C05

The view of playwright Bertolt Brecht as a pedant who used the stage to lecture audiences on the evils of capitalism or fascism doesn't wash with Allison Arkell Stockman. "I think he was really an entertainer," says the artistic director of Constellation Theatre Company. She is staging Brecht's "The Good Woman of Setzuan" at Clark Street Playhouse through April 20.

"The comic aspect is something we definitely wanted to pull out," Stockman explains. "I think Brecht is not trying to be didactic. . . . [He is] trying to entertain us while stimulating discussion."

The discussion he wished to spark with "Good Woman" is about how hard it is to be good when you're poor. Shen Te, a penniless prostitute, is the only person in Setzuan to offer three visiting deities a place to stay. Impressed, they command her to be a good person always, but she finds it difficult not to use guile to defend herself against the finaglers all around her.

Brecht's stage directions call for the three gods to make their final exit on a pink cloud. (The low-tech Clark Street doesn't quite allow for that, but they do leave in style.)

"At times I think they're like our comic relief," says Stockman, and indeed, she has the gods (Catherine Deadman, John Geoffrion and Kenny Littlejohn) arrayed like over-the-top characters from Chinese opera. Stockman asked all members of the large cast to "take things to the extreme" in terms of gestures and delivery, which are heightened just beyond naturalism, says Katie Atkinson, who plays Shen Te.

The questions Brecht asks "are questions that have been asked for thousands of years," Stockman says: "How we try to be good in a human society focused on money . . . it's not an argument for communism at all. Everybody cheats each other and tricks each other."

What Shen Te finds out in the course of the play is "in order to do good, you have to have money," Atkinson says. "The gods say, 'Be good,' and to hear that from the gods is pretty scary," says the actress, who played Scheherazade in Constellation's "The Arabian Nights" last fall. As Shen Te, she says, "I'm just human. It's not that I'm bad or good."

Constellation's next project is even more ambitious than a Brechtian epic about humankind's moral quandary. Stockman, who always seems drawn to big ideas, will stage the "Oresteia" trilogy of Aeschylus -- "Agamemnon," "Libation Bearers" and "Eumenides" -- compressed into a 2 1/2 -hour evening. The 27-member cast will feature Helen Hayes winner Nanna Ingvarsson. The plays trace "evolution from a world of blood vengeance and sacrificial killing to a civilized world," the director says. "The Oresteia" opens May 9 at Clark Street and will mark the small company's fourth show ever. After that Constellation will take up residence at the new Source.

Follow Spots

· Author James L. Swanson, who wrote "Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer," will give a talk Monday at 7 p.m. in the National Portrait Gallery about the atmosphere in Washington immediately after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The free event, marking the 143rd anniversary of the shooting, is co-presented by Ford's Theatre, which is currently under renovation. Seating is limited; call 202-633-8520 or e-mail NPGPublic to reserve seats.

· The March 26 Backstage item about Signature Theatre's "Glory Days" going to Broadway next month implied that no local theater company had transferred a play to Broadway since Arena Stage's "Great White Hope" in 1968. Not so. Arena sent several other shows to Broadway in the 1970s and '80s. They may not all have been complete "transfers" -- the same casts, directors, designers -- but the shows were distinctly Arena-bred. They include "Moonchilden" (1972), "Zalmen or the Madness of God" (1976), "Loose Ends" (1979), "Tintypes" (1980), "K2" (1983) and "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" (1984). Many Kennedy Center-commissioned and/or co-produced shows, among them "Annie" (1977) and "The Kentucky Cycle" (1993), also made the move.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company