Good Soul, Modest Lovers

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Bertolt Brecht moved to Santa Monica in the winter of 1942. He had been living in Hollywood for a few months, but like many newcomers to Los Angeles, he was soon drawn to the beach. He eventually moved to a house at 1063 26th Street where he lived until he left Southern California for good in 1947.

Not far from his 26th Street home, at a small theater in Venice, the Ipanema Theater Troupe is putting on a version of Brecht-s Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan, a play that in this country is performed and studied mainly in schools, where it is commonly known as The Good Person of Szechwan.

The play is generally considered to have been written during his time living in Scandinavia, but the playbill of this new local production claims that Brecht finished it here in L.A. That-s not exactly correct, the standard text of the play was in fact finished in Finland and from there it went on to be premiered in Switzerland in 1943.

But, stuck in Santa Monica, unable to attend the opening night of his play due to the war, and not exactly thriving under the studio system, Brecht began to tinker with Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan, in the hopes of selling it to a Broadway or Hollywood producer. However, his allegorical play about the moral difficulties of living with capitalism didn-t track so well and not surprisingly, everyone passed on the script.

This -Santa Monica version- of the play can hardly be considered the finished product, but it seems to have been the inspiration for Brazilian director Gulu Monteiro-s new adaptation and staging, which he calls: The Good Soul of Szechwan.

Monteiro-s production is a hodge-podge of different theatrical styles, using aspects of vaudeville, commedia dell'arte, and of course, Brecht-s modernist techniques. This combination doesn-t add much to the play, but it does provide for some interesting visuals and a few laughs.

But bizarre concepts cannot sink Brecht-s masterful language and sense of structure, all his plays require is a unified ensemble of actors. Clara Bellar, who plays the title-s good soul, is a captivating stage presence and she seems at ease with Brecht-s words. Perhaps this is because she is credited as translating the work from its original German. The play has been updated, but most of the cast still struggles with the text, many of them resorting to goofy accents or other affectations, despite the fact they-re speaking contemporary, American English.

A similar problem infects the cast of another local production, Lovers and Executioners-which, like Good Soul, is an adaptation of an earlier work, La Femme juge et partie by Montfluery. Unlike Monteiro, the director of Lovers and Executioners, Bill Rauch, does not attempt any fusion of theatrical styles, instead he just sets the play in a vague, costumed past. Intentional anachronisms abound: the set is old-fashioned and two-dimensional, but it features astro-turf in the garden; characters wear period dress, but occasionally tote Chanel shopping bags, give each other high-fives, or break into bad, late-80-s style rap.

These gimmicks feel like a desperate attempt to make the play accessible, so one has to wonder: why didn-t they just set the whole play in contemporary Orange County?

Staged in its intended setting, John Strand-s adaptation of Montfleury demands that the actors perform in the highly stylized manner of 17th century French comedy. But rather than teach the cast in the traditions of French comedy, or find actors who are highly trained in this specific type of performance art, Rauch simply directs his cast, and the entire play, towards the nearest and easiest punch-line. Only Susan Dalian connects with the spirit of the piece, though interestingly not with her dialogue. Her brief gestures and physical asides are what manage to convey the perfect mix of artifice and spontaneity that is the spark, not just French comedies of manners, but theatrical performances of all forms.

Lovers & Executioners runs through January 25 at the Julianne Argyros Stage in Costa Mesa; The Good Soul of Szechwan, through February 15 at the Electric Lounge in Venice.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.