Taylor Mac pulls out a cross-dressing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act in Good Person of Szechwan, a Foundry Theatre production now at La Mama. Most of the time in this sincere, Brecht fable, Mac is dolled up as “Shen Tei,” the beautifully bald prostitute with a heart of gold. (“God bless us, every one!,” you imagine her cooing while batting sparkly eyelashes.)
But when the going gets tough, Shen Tei trades her flowery daintiness for the pinstripes and pragmatism of “Shui Ta,” a brother she invents to do a little spy work. Where Shen Tei showed hospitality, Shui Ta shows practically; where Shen Tei was generous, Shui Ta is stingy.
Mac isn’t playing two characters here—Shui Ta is just Shen Tei in drag. (Or is it reverse drag?) And it is this fact that makes this dramedy so chilling: the play’s hero and villain are the same person. The conflict between good and evil is the conflict between a person and herself, between her better ideals and her more practical instincts.
Over and over, Good Person asks the question, “How can one be good in this evil world?” Brecht doesn’t blame authorities, or the wealthy, or any of the easy targets you might expect. Instead, he grabs our pointed fingers and aims them right back at ourselves, at mankind’s very nature. We may have some good, some Shen Tie in us, but we’ve also got plenty of evil. More than enough Shui Ta.
We are our own hope and our own destruction, or own saviors and our own nemeses.
Shen Tei/ Shui Ta never does quite parse that distinction. History tells us that few ever have.
Photos by Pavel Antonov