Bertolt Brecht intermingled bits of folklore, low comedy and modern psychology in "The Good Woman of Setzuan," his deceptively playful parable about a saintly prostitute striving to remain moral in an imperfect world.
Although the setting is ostensibly Chinese, this Setzuan is the fictitious, "half-Westernized" province of Brecht's imagination. At the Odyssey Theatre, Wong, the water seller (capable Alan Abelew), begins with a phony Chinese dialect of the most politically incorrect variety, but quickly reverts to standard stage diction, commenting, "Stupid Asian accent."
It's this kind of self-referential wryness that gives the production contemporary punch. But moments like these are few. "Good Woman" is a sprawling and ambitious show with a large cast and a lot of philosophical terrain to cover. Ron Sossi's staging, while creditable, is intermittently stuffy. Apart from a couple of awkwardly composed crowd scenes, Sossi's main liability is his sometimes amateurish cast.
A notable exception is the heartfelt Beth Hogan as Shen Te, the eponymous prostitute who opens her heart and her purse to the needy and is almost destroyed by her own largess.
Stephanie Marra's splendidly ugly metal set has the right feel but is difficult for the actors to get around on. Doc Ballard's moody yet garish lighting and music director Sean Paxton's dissonant, original music are effective, as are the costumes and masks by Denise Blasor and C. Juliette Blasor.
This production poses a profound question: Can one live in the world and remain good? Brecht offers no easy answers--but we suspect that wise and caustic master had drawn his own sad conclusions.
"The Good Woman of Setzuan," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; this Sunday and July 12, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 2. $18.50-$22.50. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.