Chick Shines in ‘Good Person of Setzuan’ (Four Stars)

by Mike Hoban

“The Good Person of Setzuan”- presented by Fort Point Theatre Channel; written by Bertolt Brecht and adapted by Tony Kushner; Directed by Christie Lee Gibson, designed by Anne Loyer, with music composed and directed by Nick Thorkelson. At 10 Channel Center Street, Fort Point, Boston, through March 9th.

There are a lot of good reasons to see the Fort Point Theatre Channel production of “The Good Person of Setzuan” but none quite so compelling as the performance of lead actress Kelly Chick in the role of the hooker with the proverbial heart of gold. Chick drives this entertaining production with a combination of sweet charm (as the prostitute Shen Teh) and iron-fisted resolve (as the cold-hearted Shui Ta) in her dual role in this Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play set in the poverty-strapped Chinese province.

The play opens with Wang the water seller (Alan Sevigny) waiting for three gods to arrive at the gates to the city. The gods are coming on a familiar mission – finding good people who still live according to the principles that they have laid out – much like Diogenes searching for an honest man. As part of the test for a person’s “goodness”, the gods (played comically and over the top by the trio of Kathleen Lewis, Lindsay Eagle, and Kevin Groppe) first seeking lodging for the night, aware that none may want to help three “strangers”. Unfortunately, the only person who is willing to give them shelter is Shen Teh, the local hooker, and she’s got a paying client coming over just as the gods arrive. She turns the client away although she desperately needs the money for rent, and the gods reward her for the night’s stay with enough money to quit the flesh business and open her own tobacco shop. The striking Ms. Chick radiates goodness as Shen Teh, a look enhanced somewhat by the kabuki theatre-style makeup (white pancake makeup with colorful accents) that the players all wear.

But that gift also turns out to be part of the god’s test, as Shen Teh’s goodness is put on trial when her lowlife “friends” come to freeload off her good fortune by using her tobacco shop as a crash pad/party hangout. Her woes increase further when a carpenter comes to collect on an inflated and unplanned for debt for building shelves at the shop. Unable to stand up for herself, she concocts a male “cousin” named Shui Ta – whom she creates by donning a pair of glasses, a husky voice and a bowtie – and her alter ego deals with the pushy carpenter by paying him a fraction of his fee. He then gives her uninvited house guests the boot, with the help of a local (and somewhat corrupt) local law enforcement official. Free of her degenerate pals, Shen Teh sets about to the task of doing “good” by leaving out rice for the poor to eat on a daily basis while barely making ends meet herself. This takes its toll on her financially, especially with her cruel landlady (the deliciously evil Rebecca Lehroff) demanding six months rent upfront. But her reputation for goodness makes her popular among fellow citizens, including an elderly couple who loan her money to pay her rent.

Love enters the picture when Shen Teh meets a young down-on-his-luck pilot Yang Sun (the terrific Jeff Marcus) who is about to hang himself. She treats him with her trademark kindness and quickly falls deeply in love with him, which leads to a series of very bad, emotionally based decisions. As the problems begin to mount, she begins to rely more heavily on her fabricated cousin character to save herself from her own goodness, and the cold-hearted side of Shui Ta begins to dominate the lovely Shen Teh. And the struggle of good versus evil is on – with the gods (and the audience) paying close attention via their trusted but mildly shady (but good-hearted) servant – Wang the water seller.

This is a pretty solid show, featuring a lot of young talent (particularly the remarkable Chick) and is also a lot of fun to watch. The show is augmented by a number of pretty solid musical numbers composed by music director Nick Thorkelson and The Carny Band, featuring vocals from not only the talented Chick, but also Olivia Brownlee and other cast members. (Song titles were not provided in the program).

This is also a very creative production – beginning with the imaginative (and low budget) costuming by Silvia Graziano (who works some campy miracles with paper and scissors; the puppet/mask/props team of Hana Pegrimkova and Patrizia Rodomonti; and the set design (by Anne Loyer), which uses movable screens and giant fans manipulated by the actors as set crew to change the scenes. One slight drawback is the length of time that the scene changes take, but that is mitigated by the band’s palying during the interludes. One celebrity side note: Musical director Nick Thorkelson is brother to Peter Tork of the Monkees, who also served as the guitarist for the Carny Band on the night I attended. Tork will make additional appearances during the production. I can also report that he’s got some nice musical chops.