It is a good thing that Arlington County has not yet had to close down the Clark Street Playhouse as the redevelopment of the property north of Crystal City draws closer. The longer the playhouse operates, the more interesting theater Arlingtonians get a chance to witness.
The latest beneficiary of the delay is the Constellation Theatre Company, a relatively new company that impresses with productions of substance, drawing material from the more obscure works of significant authors. Last year they mounted August Strindberg's "A Dream Play" and Mary Zimmerman's "The Arabian Nights." They are starting off this year with a piece by Bertolt Brecht that pits charity against self-interest in a fantasy set in a Chinese village visited by a trio of Gods.
"The Good Woman of Setzuan" was written by Brecht in the early years of World War II, and was translated by Eric Bently whose work is responsible for much of the attention Brecht received in the 1960s and 70s. For a piece written at a time of trauma for its author and for the world, it is a surprisingly spirited piece with a strong sense of humor. That's not to say it is filled with jokes. Far from it. But the people and the incidents in it are intriguingly upbeat.
FILLING THE LARGE playing space of the Clark Street Playhouse with a street scene of the village of Setzuan, Allison Arkell Stockman's production has a solid, substantial feel. The costumes by Yvette Mr. Ryan go a long way toward solidifying that general feel.
Three gods have come to earth to check on humanity's adherence to principals of charity, kindness and selflessness. It won't come as too much of a surprise to the audience that they have trouble finding many people who really live their lives by those values. In fact, only one person in the entire town of Setzuan is moved to offer them shelter for the night, everyone else being too busy with their own interests.
Ah, but who is this kind woman? Why, she's a prostitute! They are so pleased with her kindness that they give her enough money to open her own shop where she can sell tobacco and not herself.
Just how practical are kindness, charity and the rest? Once the woman is running her own shop, she is besieged by neighbors and friends who want something from her. Her newfound business is threatened by her inability to make "businesslike" decisions. What to do?
She dresses up as a man. Pretending to be her own cousin, she throws interlopers out and refuses requests so that the business can stand on its own.
Finally, the townspeople are seeing a lot of the cousin and none of the woman they knew so well, raising suspicions that this newcomer may have done away with their friend, the former-prostitute with a heart of gold.
Katie Atkinson plays the prostitute, Shen Te, with a bright, chipper attitude that is appealing. Catherine Deadman, John Geoffrion and Kenny Littlejohn are a somewhat comic trio of gods, and the residents of Setzuan are portrayed by a large cast. In all, 20 performers bring the city street to bustling life.
Music plays a part in the production as well with Tom Teasley providing an original score and Ashley Ivey choreographing the movement of the large cast.