EP Drops the BAAL on Brecht

September 14, 2009 at 5:25 pm Leave a comment

REVIEW

BAAL

EP Theater

Written by Bertolt Brecht

Directed by AJ Ware and Hunter Kennedy

Through October 10th (tickets available here)

2 Stars (our of 4)

Because it is the first play written by Bertolt Brecht, arguably the most important theatre theorist of the 20th Century, Baal is a fascinating work.  The sprawling drama was written in 1918, before Brecht nailed down the Epic theatre style which would become his trademark.  Glimmers of Brecht’s later techniques can still be found, though, such as the use of song and direct address.  EP Theater’s current production, billed as their biggest show to date, features live music accompaniment by the band The Loneliest Monk.  Although the production values of this Baal can be pretty ingenious, it lacks clarity and comes across as sloppy and confusing.

There is a lot of love for Brecht’s first work right now, with not one but two full productions happening this season (TUTA is also producing the play next May).  Now Baal is an interesting little play for studying the writer’s development, but Brecht’s later masterpieces totally overshadow his debut in terms of quality.  I wondered why any company would select it over his later works, but I was reminded how devastating and resonant the story can be.  Drawing on Romantic period themes, the play follows a young, self-destructive poet with an insatiable appetite for liquor, sex, and verse.  Desensitized to the world, Baal leaves shattered hearts and lives in his wake.

Co-directors AJ Ware and Hunter Kennedy’s production is so muddled; however, the full potential impact of the play is lost.  Most of the locations or spans of time were never defined.  This made the action of story and relationships of the characters hard to piece together.  There’s also a diverse collection of tertiary characters that are double-cast, but these were also ill-defined.  The narrative in general was jumbled and the themes, characters, and emotional effect were disordered.

Even though Baal was written before the Brechtian style became the Brechtian style, there are still opportunities to use his powerful methods.  Brecht himself retooled the play in 1926 to more closely fit his tastes.  I was perplexed by the fact that EP’s production seems to shy away from embracing Brechtian techniques when they can be such a fun challenge for a smaller company.  The live musicians are a start, especially when they occasionally interact with the actors.  But there isn’t much of an attempt to play around with the audience; it feels like we’re watching a realistic play with some poetry tossed into the dialogue.

The performances might be to blame here, many being way more moody than cynically detached.  Craig Cunningham was able to encapsulate the moroseness and aloofness of Baal, along with some of the humor (like when he’s playing with a fresh corpse).  Shawn Pfautsch’s Ekart, Baal’s slightly more aware best friend, refreshingly punched up the poetry of the script.  However, I’m pretty sure Pfautsch and Cunningham were secretly competing for wobbliest walk and seeing who could get closest to the other.  The best performance in the production, hands down, is Gus Menary as Johannes.  The part is tiny, but Menary’s portrayal was disturbingly underplayed, in particular when he describes how the body of his dead sister must look after years of floating in a river.

David Beaupre’s drab set design allowed the actors to explore different levels and could be transformed into a myriad of locales.  With all of the possibilities the set opened up, it feels as if the set wasn’t fully utilized by the directors.  The lighting was possibly the worst lighting design I’ve ever seen, sometimes highlighting pointless sections of wall and other times not providing enough visibility to see the actors.  The Loneliest Monk is a saving grace of this production, though, providing complex and haunting ambiance.

The live music along with the actors’ obvious respect for Brecht’s evocative poetry makes the production acceptable.  With more attention to story and technique, though, EP’s “biggest production to date” could’ve been destructive.

–Barry Eitel

More information can be found at www.eptheater.com.

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