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Don’t hold your Brecht: The Good Woman of Setzuan is here

June 15, 2010

It’s been over a decade since Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Woman of Setzuan” got a professional send-up in Los Angeles. It’s been re-imagined by director Charles Otte at the 99-seat Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood. The show has a very strong musical component.

“I came to theatre from being a musician,” says Otte, left. “That’s my first love. I’m a violinist. When I was in elementary school I started playing the violin and was lucky enough to have a really great, inspirational teacher, somebody who was able to teach me music and, really, about everything. I got a broad exposure to theatre, arts, and opera.”

In “The Good Woman of Setzuan,” Otte not only directs, but he’s also the violinist in the pit and the projection and lighting designer. He’s “a musician first, then a director, then a designer.”

His musical knowledge simplified what could have been a complex problem. It didn’t hurt that a friend already had written a score for the show. “Liz Swados and I met in the ’80s in New York. She was working at La Mama and I was the assistant director under Andrei Serban on a number of productions. After I moved to LA, she and I stayed in touch. I remembered that Liz had written a score to “The Good Woman” so, I asked if she’d be willing to let us use it. She said that she’d love to, sent us the music, and wrote a few more songs.”

Otte calls Swados a wonderful collaborator. “Dean Mora,” he adds, “is our musical director and keyboard player. Dean, and Alex Wright, another musician, helped put together some incidental music that we’ve added – a lot of sound effects type music, really underscoring some of the scenes.”

He calls this music a great synthesis of eastern and western. “This is a German representation of a fictional Asian town, so the music might have some Asian overtones, but played on an accordion. Maybe a slight Kurt Weill feel, yet with Asian melodic lines. In some ways, the argument that Brecht serves up over how to be good lets us look at it from a couple of different points of view, eastern and western.”

Otte has long had a fondness for this work. “It’s really one of Brecht’s greatest plays,” he believes, “and arguably one of the best of the 20th century. It addresses issues in a way that are emotionally compelling and, at the same time, intellectual. That’s the hallmark in some ways of how Brecht wanted to present his works. So the piece deals with the question of how you can be a good person and still maintain what you would call today a standard of living that is good for you personally.”

The play spins on a gift the gods give Shen Te. She uses the money to try to set up a shop and do good in this fictional city. “She is immediately taken advantage of,” says Otte. “She’s forced to create an alter ego. A cousin of hers, a hard-nosed businessman, comes in and makes things right. It’s a question in my mind that has to be addressed: How am I able to make money, survive, do well, look out for my family, and at the same time be engaged with the world and be altruistic to a degree without pulling myself down?”

Shen Te, in essence, has a “little lifeboat and if too many people hang on, they’ll pull it under water unless she does something to make herself survive. It’s a perennial question living in a modern industrial society.

“It’s a really well constructed piece that succeeds on so many levels. It’s a dialectic – a dialogue between two points of view. In presenting them, Brecht is calling on the audience to engage and really come up with their own point of view. He wants us to think and not just cruise along the surface of the water.

“What’s great about Brecht is that he’s also an entertainer. He knows how to include music, songs, cabaret – elements that almost provide a relief from the darker points of the play. It’s almost like a breath of fresh air. He finishes a tender scene and follows it immediately with an up-tempo song to change the mood.”

The plot itself is similar, notes Otte, full of emotional and intellectual elements combined.

Charles Otte is known, too, for his work in mixed media. He’s done large scale events for conventions and directed awards shows. In 2002, he received the TEA Award for Outstanding Achievement for The Star of Destiny and repeated the feat in 2006 as creative director for the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. In 2007 he received the LA Weekly award for best comedy direction for “Travesties.”

“Last fall, I began teaching a class at the University of Texas in Austin. “It’s a course in media for theatre and the field is only going to grow. It’s similar to how editing is becoming ubiquitous – people can do it anywhere, but people have to learn how to do it. Same for theatre. You can project anything on the wall – the trick is to know what to put up.”

Otte includes mixed media – a little of it, anyway – in this work. “There is a projection element I put together with a graphic artist named Liam Carl. It was edited by Peter Carlin. People tend to present multimedia in two basic ways: background scenery so you know where everything is and to create some kind of commentary, like a live camera feed or something that reflects more thematically what’s going on in the show. In this production, we do a little bit of both.

“Brecht was always a big fan of using titles and places to tell you where you were and provide you with a context – a theatre or tobacco shop. I wanted to use the idea that we were looking at lots of different points of view, so there’s a slightly cubist element to this, if that makes sense. The imagery that you see in the tobacco shop is an image of a Picasso sculpture with a title over it that says Tobacco Shop. So you’re seeing both a graphic and thematic representation of where you are. It may also be symbolic like smoke wafting through the air.
The cast of “The Good Woman of Setzuan” includes Alex Wright, Becca Cousineau, Benny Wills, Beth Robbins, Bill Jackson, Bruce Dickinson, Derek Smith, Ehrin Marlow, Hannah Pierce, Jan Munroe, Jordana Berliner, Jennifer Richardson, Katherine Griffith, Lauren Lovett, Michael Franco, Phillip Brock, Robert Goerge, Sarah Buster, Sullivan Brock, and Tommy Burruss.

It’s produced by Caitlin Renee Campbell, Anne Marie Gillen, and David Castellani. Scenic design by Richard Hoover; costumes by Christina Wright; projections and lights by Charlie Otte.

Fridays and Saturdays through July 17, 2010 at 8pm; Sundays at 7pm

The Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038 (323) 882-6912.

Tickets.

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