Brecht, Love and Taylor Mac
By Barbara Hammond
The Foundry Theatre's Good Person of Szechwan
By Bertolt Brecht
74A E. 4th St.
Box office: (212) 475-7710
"I believe, as a theater artist, I’m not a teacher; I’m a reminder. I’m just trying to remind you of things you’ve dismissed, forgotten, or buried."
--Taylor Mac, “I Believe” (Speech at the Public Theater, Jan. 2013)
Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, stated: “We can not know what God is, but rather what He is not.”
If there is a reason to believe in a greater power in the theater world in the twenty-first century, it is surely the divinely inspired Taylor Mac, whom I happen to love best for what he is not.
He is not a set of beliefs. He is not a wallflower; he is not vain; he is not one sex or the other, exactly; he is not to be defined. He is not, as Buckminster Fuller might say, a noun.
He is a poignant list of questions, a mirror to gaze into and ask: who on earth am I? He is, as Fuller said we all are, a verb.
His performance art, his plays and his songs – his very being – it all messes profoundly with our idea of women, men and personhood, with what we think we know and what we thought we knew we wanted. He is long and lean and dresses his frame in shimmering fabric cut to flatter his figure and expose his flat, hairy chest. He has flowing wigs and headdresses, but often leaves naked his shaved bald head. His makeup artist transforms his face into a mask of applied – no, discovered -- beauty.
But -- he is not dependent on any of these props and costumes. He is neither woman, man nor androgyne; with his body, his face and, most of all, his mascara-laden eyes, he projects compassion: an all-knowing, understanding mother/father/lover/friend. Over the top as it might sound, he is like a god.
In the supremely pleasurable Foundry Theatre production of Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan, now running at La MaMa, Mac embodies the masculine and feminine, playing (as Brecht envisioned) both the woman Shen Te and the man she invents, Shui Ta. Mac is so detailed in his transformation to Cousin Shui Ta, with his zip-on suit and cartoonish black mustache, that you can’t help giving this invented man credit for what, in the story, is executed entirely by Shen Te, the penniless prostitute who had given shelter to the gods, and thus been awarded a small cash gift with which to start a tobacco business.
True courage is equally rare in men and women. We are relieved when Shui Ta appears, and begins to right the wrongs done to Shen Te. Really, we are relieved that Shen Te has the savvy to create an alter ego that can survive when her strategy of goodness cannot help her against the crush of cruelty and poverty in which she finds herself.
Brecht’s intention may have been to point out what Shen Te had to stoop to in order to survive – this production, and Mac’s performance, give dignity to the man she becomes, and the manner in which he makes decisions are those of a pragmatist; neither a bully nor a victim. It was fascinating to watch Shen Te’s romantic kindness and charity disappear in the face of reality. If she never inhabited Shui Ta, she might never have experienced the power of saying no, and would not have, in the end, had the courage to strip herself of her masculinity before the gods and stand alone, pregnant and all-woman, demanding to be seen.
We watch a man playing a prostitute fall in love and get pregnant – and then watch that prostitute disguise herself as a man to protect herself and her unborn child. As the pregnancy becomes more difficult to hide and her tears impossible to contain, Shen Te struggles to become something she does not wish to be – a man -- in order to save her baby. She has no one to turn to but the “man inside her” for protection. All the flesh-and-blood men in her orbit would extract a price for their support that would cost her her goodness. By the time the play’s last court scene arrives, with the magistrates replaced by the gods, she knows that suit has to come off and the woman must be revealed, even though no outside help will come for her or her child.
I recently conducted a survey for an essay I am writing about women’s lives, and one question I posed--“If you were as you are but had been born a man, how would you live differently?”--was consistently answered: “I’d have made more money.”
For this, Shen Te created Shui Ta.
For this, successful theater artists create a no-nonsense, all-business front to protect the vulnerable artist and the unborn art within.
Szechwan’s Good Person cannot make it, forever, alone. That this person lives in the midst of lazy, complacent gods and a vicious, malevolent world makes Shen Te’s goodness heroic. And, in a world where so few souls care whether serious theater lives or dies, and its very existence requires something beyond mere vocational devotion from its artists, Taylor Mac’s vision for a wild, messy, gorgeous theater is equally heroic.
In his recent “I Believe” speech at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, Mac said: “I believe love when used as a verb is true and when used as a noun is a lie. I believe in verbs.”
The Foundry Theatre’s production notes say that Brecht’s favorite motto was the Cartesian “doubt everything,” and that his plays are arranged to encourage upheavals of habitual thought. Just to behold Taylor Mac encourages such an upheaval; in the role of Shen Te, with Brecht’s words in his mouth, he demands one.