A Short Organum for the Strawdog Theatre

giving brecht a new identity.

“[The spectator] can for instance hear a woman speaking and imagine her speaking differently, let us say in a few weeks’ time, or other women speaking differently at that moment but in another place.” – Bertolt Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre”

Michaela Petro and John Henry Roberts in Strawdog Theater Company’s The Good Soul of Szechuan.

The danger in Strawdog Theatre’s recent production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan is that the festive style might leave the audience with only a shoulder shrug of existentialist absurdism—“life, whattya gonna do? Mine as well just have a good time.”

But, of course, the alienation effect of Brecht’s epic theater is not supposed to do this; it is supposed to spark audiences to act when confronted with the impossible and shocking contradictions of capitalism. One might leave Strawdog Theatre’s raucous production resigned to just kickin’ it individualistically, when you’re supposed to leave resolved to kick out the jams collectively. We are not, in other words, supposed to shrug our shoulders and party but exclaim, “hey, capitalism, damn, let’s overthrow it now, why don’t we!”

Fortunately, the acting allows the play to have its absurdist joys and dialectically materialize them too. It does so through shape-shifting stylization. In particular, Michaela Petro, who plays the central character Shen Te, never stays in one place. Her acting as Brecht’s hooker with a heart of gold (the cast playfully calls Shen Te “Shan-tey” over porno soundtrack music, something I think Brecht would have appreciated) suggests that the idea of collectivity—in particular, collectivity as the range of personalities and character-types that a social system produces—can in fact lurk within one individual.

Some of this shape-shifting is in the play already. Brecht has Shen Te adopt the alter ego Shui Ta—a ruthless businessman cousin who is the polar opposite of the good soul Shen Te (Petro plays Shui Ta as a kind of hip-hop gangsta). So too, like most actors in Brecht’s plays, Petro must step out of her fictional roles to address the audience directly, explaining repeatedly what her character is doing at the moment.

Under the direction of Shade Murray, however, Petro takes the instability of her three roles much further. She moves continuously through different voices, gestures, mannerisms, movements, and personae to the point that we can never quite pinpoint whom she is performing when. She is never herself. Which is to say, she never acts Shen Te as a stable personality. This is just as Brecht prescribes. He advises actors to maintain a distance from their roles in order to alienate audiences and enliven their senses of critical awareness.

So there are many, many more characters in Petro’s version than just Shen Te, Shui Ta, and the Actor. Another way to say this would be that she is performing everyone. She is an Everyman. Or, more appropriately, Everywoman. Or, maybe best said, Everyperson.

Watching from the audience, this becomes like gazing at a blur. Girlish, macho, comic, tender, tough, mean, lovelorn, hateful, tragic, devoted, doubtful, lost, found, defeated, poised…Petro whirls through expressive modes until the audience is pulled into the vortex. By the end of the play, we are not only no longer certain what a “good soul” is in capitalist society, but also what constitutes a “soul” at all.

Society and social revolution might not be up for grabs in this updated version of Brecht’s classic, then, but the self certainly is. Instead of sweeping capitalism into the dustbin of history, we get caught in the tangled strands of identity within capitalism.

Moreover, the production suggests, the broom has lost its handle. The soul in Strawdog’s The Good Soul of Szechuan has neither beginning nor end. Instead, we witness a seemingly endless motion of selves. They bristle and brush against each other, none of them ever becoming the essential Shen Te.

To put it another way, there is no wellspring of the self in this play’s worldview. There is only a torrent of social forces out of which we conduct a furious mop up operation, soaking up possible selves, slashing and splashing our way through the muck. Petro’s performance suggests that at least one of the problems of capitalist society—it prevents us from being whole—might be a canard. Rather, the uncertain selfhood produced by capitalist dilemmas might itself be productive of new possibilities.

In the whirl of manipulations and compromised ethics that Shen Te confronts—that we all face—the self-made man of capitalism gives way, in a blurry, fleetingly-glimpsed moment, to the continuously and inventively self-unmade person. There’s no broom here anymore, and no dustbin either. But there is still a sweeping gesture. By continually dissimulating, Petro’s Shen Te brilliantly rifles through selves and sorts the scattered remains in search of the good that might unify people.

Whereas Brecht’s original play might have emphasized that the liberated and good soul would only emerge after capitalism was vanquished, Strawdog’s incarnation reverses the order: only out of the free-wheeling motion of identity through improvisatory wit might a new and robust collectivity to oppose capitalism’s impossible choices emerge.

It’s a daring implication. Though not really an answer to the material woes of capitalism, it does open up cultural space for the investigation of potential responses to the social, moral, and indeed religious dilemmas of the system. And this new space erupts from the ability of drama to show how collectivity lurks within us as well as without.

At the end of the play, Shen Te is frozen in the afterglow of the glaring spots. The self becomes projected onto a stage—of both theater and history—beyond which she asks us to go. This is an act, and a good one.

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