THE GODS ARE LOOKING for a few good men. In fact, they're so worried about the rotten state of the world they'll settle for finding just one.
That's the premise of "The Good Person of Setzuan," Bertolt Brecht's darkly funny morality fable that asks, "How can I be good when everything is so expensive?"
Brecht's 1943 play gets the complete Arena-rama treatment, and the company's incredible resources -- 26 actors, director Garland Wright, the finest designers and technicians, and the versatile arena space -- are taxed to the utmost in the superb realization of this complex work.
A trio of gods visit the imaginary city of Setzuan, looking for one good person -- or else. Since no one in this town without pity will put the strangers up for the night, a wretched water-seller, Wang, finally finds them lodging with Shen Teh, a kind prostitute.
Shen Teh hopes to do good, but as her fortunes wax and wane, she meets each of the Seven Deadly Sins. So her cousin, cold, pragmatic Shui Ta, appears to handle the business side. They are Brecht's two faces of "good" -- kindness and principle. After Job-like trials, Shen Teh finally reappears before the gods for judgment -- in a Nuremberg-style interrogation booth, a purely Arena touch.
Marxist Brecht doesn't blame the world for man's miseries, he blames man, seeing economics at the root. The gods wonder "what has business to do with leading an honest and upright life?" It seems that to prosper, even to survive, it is necessary to forgo charitable sacrifice and mercy. Is it possible to be good to others, and to oneself? What better time to produce this play than in mammon-obsessed America.
As directed by Wright, Arena's production surely fulfills Brecht's vision of "epic theater." In creating this densely populated world, Wright uses every corner of the building, and each character is fully realized. Randy Danson is fine as both Shen Teh and Shui Ta. All the other performances are good, though Richard Bauer's comic contortions as Wang are a bit much.
As always at Arena, design and lighting are as integral to the presentation as the performances. John Arnone's grim, grey Setzuan is a stunner, complete with a curtain of rain drizzling onto rutted concrete pavement, enhanced by the Nancy Schertler's raw, unfriendly lighting.
Though Brecht's vision is unflinchingly bleak, "Good Person" is not despairing. Brecht's politics are important, but he prized entertainment above all, and he sends us away from Setzuan with a laugh -- and a challenge.