Bertolt Brecht's plays inevitably remain challenges to theater companies and to audiences. But then, Brecht wanted to challenge everyone. Although he aimed for satire, he called upon directors and performers to produce and interpret his material freely. Deliberately breaking down the fourth wall, he sought to provoke the public to self-reflect, to be critical of what's seen and heard. Step back and ponder: He meanwhile protected himself, claiming everyone on and off stage shares responsibility for any production.
On The Good Person of Setzuan, Brecht worked for 12 years and was never satisfied. Nonetheless, Carnegie Mellon's School of Drama assumes the task in Wendy Arons and Tony Kushner's adaptation, inventively and dynamically staged by visiting German director Peter Kleinert. Collaborating with him is German songwriter/musical director Jürgen Beyer. The playing by the entire ensemble and their expertly sung, imaginative songs surge with vitality.
But eventually, the effect comes across as more and more of the same thing. Within Tyler Holland's inventive costumes, amid Patrick Rizzotti's clever, on-stage-assembled sets and props, we are constantly being tossed around within a simple story which insists on just one major theme: whether good can exist in thoroughly corrupt society. Kleinert's array of surface inventiveness looks like a way to distract us from a none-too-compelling interior.
Certainly Kleinert has called for cast improvisation, although it may not have always been obvious Friday night, except when Corey Cott, as the Water Seller, Wang, spent too much time playing freely to the house.
Ava DeLuca-Verley gave a solidly impressive performance as Shen Te, the Good Person, as well as of Shen Te's alter ego, the man Shui Ta, although it took me a while to understand that it was a disguise and not two deliberately separate roles.
Kleinert capably uses modern stage-craft, such as live TV-camera close-ups to suggest intimacy, and fascinating, colorful projections. Less successfully, some actors exaggerate their characters while, inconsistently, others play theirs straight. But then, Brecht would probably accept that. And perhaps Brecht would also say that my opinions and interpretations are part of a deliberately fluid, ongoing process, and that you should judge for yourself.
The Good Person of Setzuan continues through Sat., Oct. 15. Philip Chosky Theater, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. 412-268-2407 or www.drama.cmu.edu