I first encountered The Good Soul of Setzuan as a senior in high school. It was the first play that I ever read that wasn’t a class assignment. I had been cast in our school’s production of You Can’t Take It With You – I knew the play featured a Russian ballet instructor and I auditioned for the show hoping for the opportunity to show off my best Boris Badenov impression. I got the part and fell in love. The director was a graduate of Northwestern and an exile from the fringes of New York theatre. He ran a tight ship “No absences for Any reason.” A few weeks into rehearsal I realized I was scheduled to take the S.A.T. the following Saturday. I approached the director explaining the situation and told him that if he needed me to I would forgo the S.A.T. for the sake of the rehearsal. He told me to go ahead and take it. Because of my excellent rehearsal habits, he would excuse me. The week later he came to me at the end of the day and handed me a paperback copy of a play. It was The Good Woman of Setzuan as it was commonly called then. I read it dutifully and was so green that I thought Shen Te and Shui Ta were two different people.
Fast forward twenty years. The play (still called the Good Woman) was the closing show of Irondale’s first season. I’d read Brook’s The Empty Space and had become a devotee of both Peter and Bert. This was a time of the small experimental theaters – the Performance Group, the Living Theatre, and these theatres were bringing politics from the street to the stage. Our Good Woman was done in what Brook called the rough theater. Barbara was Shen Te, Terry played Shu Fu and the first god, Paul Lazar was the second god and the flyer, Josh Broder played Wang and Annie-B Parson did the choreography.
Jump another thirty five years, and we’re back once again. It’s like running into an old friend who has changed so much you can’t remember what they used to be like, but the person in front of you now is very exciting to be with. You like them a lot more than you did so many years ago. Like that friend the play has grown wiser, more complex, and has so much to say about the world we’re living in at this particularly awful moment. The friend still doesn’t have all the answers, but he’s grown a lot better about prompting us to search for the right answers.