Written by Bertolt Brecht. Translated by Eric Bentley
Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman
Choreographed by Ashley Ivey
Produced by Constellation Theatre Company
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
In this fun-loving cautionary tale, Shen-Te, winningly played by Katie Atkinson proves to be a good woman, pleasing to the gods, sacrificing her own needs and well being for everybody else’s interest, and attempting to marry for love. Except for the pleasing of the gods part, the rest of the premise could come straight out of any contemporary reality show filled with gaggles of friends and relatives having their say, action and reaction shots of the main character wrestling with conflicting emotions, some desperately trying to do the right thing in a “What’s in it for me?” society. The fresh contemporary translation by Eric Bentley and brisk direction by Allison Arkell Stockman belie the actual setting – a rural village in 19th century China, complete with water carriers, makeshift rickshaws, and creatively layered peasant garb.
In a “life happens” moment, Shen-Te opens her humble home to three zany-looking gods who have bet they couldn’t find even one good person who would demonstrate such hospitality by taking them in. The water-carrier narrator Wong was so sure of failure, that he hid in fear and shame only to discover the kindness of this unassuming prostitute, a downcast, cast off and disregarded element of society. Thus, Brecht’s tale raises societal questions about honor, caring, decency, and ultimately love.
Atkinson, whose talents have been shining brightly in the metro area, tackles a new high, portraying duo characters. When family and so-called friends take advantage of her generosity, Shen-Te resorts to slapping on a mustache and struts around as a no-nonsense “cousin” who kicks them to the curb, handles the callous, profiteering side of transactions, and runs the business, balancing a reality-based ying to her ever caring yang.
In an added twist, when she finds what she thinks is true love, her dual role allows her to get a glimpse of her beloved aviator’s true colors. With her entire livelihood at stake, Shen-Te makes strange choices based on such love and trust that it makes you pause and wonder. With eyes wide open, she prepares for her wedding knowing full well that her intended does not have the best intentions- “he may not love me, but I love him and that’s what matters.” Shen-Te learns that In the cold cruel world, that might not be enough. Atkinson maintains a solid portrayal of her character(s) through all of the lessons, listening intensely to the proprietary cousin, lashing out with fiery intensity from the depths of her being at the pivotal ending scenes, and a touching fantasy of being a new mom. It’s a tour de force delivery.
Atkinson is ably assisted by Ashley Ivey who is equally appealing as the water-carrier, sooth-sayer, and overall narrator for the tale, Wong. Ivey, who also serves as choreographer, has lithe movements as he crouches for cover, moves with agility, and brings the audience into all aspects of the tale. He is a comfortable and trusted guide from the introduction to the thought-provoking end. Ron Ward is also engaging and appealing as the love interest aviator. The several strong story lines move with the quick stroke pace of a fable, sometimes intersecting and criss-crossing each other, delivered by a cast of twenty characters. Director Stockman’s sure and steady direction maintains a clear focus on what could have ended up a muddled mess.
In addition, the creative designers handle the smallest detail with as much ease as the large epic parts. Original music, composed by Tom Teasley, blended far away sounds of Asian tonality with a modern contemporary flair. The delightful costumes by Yvette M. Ryan were distinctive for each character, and the set by A.J. Guban is a marvel.
Constellation uses the spacious Clark Street Playhouse as the ultimate playground to create the village of Setzuan. Constellation takes full advantage of the venue’s spatial largess with a sliding door set that must be seen to be believed-it is essentially a village on stage, complete with a beautiful expansive tree, and a vastly steeped incline in the back for the gods to ascend into the heights. The set alone is a theatrical feat of vision and love.
Barely out of its first season, Constellation Theatre is already becoming renown in the metro area for consistently creative work. Next in the line-up is Oresteia by Aeschylus, also directed by Stockman, featuring Helen Hayes Award winner Nanna Ingvarsson and a cast even larger than this one. Obviously, the sky is no limit for this imaginative group – it’s definitely time to get them in your theatre constellation.
Running Time: 2:30, with one intermission
When: Thru April 20th Thursday – Saturday at 8, and Sunday at 3pm.
Where: Clark Street Playhouse, 601 South Clark Street, Arlington, VA
Call: 800-494-8497 or consult the website.