Gods are no help to man in Bertolt Brecht's bleak parable of a play (translated by Eric Bentley with music by Elizabeth Swados). The question Brecht poses: How does one stay a good person in a bad world? The hapless pivotal character Shen Te (Lauren Lovett) is a former prostitute, who uses her limited funds to help anyone who asks for it -- and everyone does. Her most shameless exploiter is her lover, Yang Sun (Benny Wills), who feels no compunction about draining her of her last penny. To protect herself, the lovesick Shen Te devises an alter ego: She poses, in male drag, as her tougher-minded capitalist cousin, Shui Ta, who takes over her affairs when she's "away." The ruse works for a time, but eventually Shen Te must abandon it and continue opting to do others' will even when it runs counter to her self-interest -- which it always does. Director Charles Otte has assembled a panoply of impressive technical and onstage talent to present an ambitious and artful staging that communicates the chaos, corruption and senseless suffering inherent in the playwright's vision. Most striking are Alex Wright and Dean Mora's sound design and original music, respectively (the music is live), and the arresting video imagery (Otte's design), which at times even simulates the town of Setzuan's drenching melancholic rain. The problem is that Brecht's epic theater deals with archetypes, and that's the plane on which Lovett and most of the ensemble so capably perform. The result is a dramatic piece worthy of respect rather than one to which I responded emotionally. Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through July 17. (323) 882-6912.
Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Starts: June 4. Continues through July 17, 2010