Review: EP Theatre’s “Baal”

EP’s “Baal” Far from Ballsy


EP Theatre presents:

by Bertolt Brecht
co-directed by AJ Ware and Hunter Kennedy
1820 S. Halsted (map)
thru October 3rd (tickets)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

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 Theatre’s current production, billed as their biggest show to date, features live music baalaccompaniment 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 are never defined. This makes 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 are also ill-defined. The narrative in general in jumbled and the themes, characters, and emotional effect are disordered.

EP-theater-logo 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.

Rating: ««

Review: Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal”

Going On a Tear With Bertolt Brecht


EP Theater presents:

by Bertolt Brecht
directed by A.J. Ware and Hunter Kennedy
through October 3rd (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

One thing you can say about EP Theater’s production of Baalthey do nothing by halves. They flounder and flop like a fish out of water in the first act, only to snap into riveting concentration and power with the second.

Written in 1918, when Bertolt Brecht was twenty years young, snapping a whip against his thigh as he accosted women in the streets, Baal clearly shows Decadent and Aesthetic movement influences—the dark side of 19th century Romanticism. Its action is raw and scandalous; its language is thickly poetic – so thickly poetic that character motives can be obscured. So if the actor hasn’t made clear choices about what the words mean, there’s no way the audience will ever deduce it. It’s a production you can both love and hate, kind of like the eponymous character himself.

But, in the final analysis, what’s not to love about two bad-boy artists tearing through women, booze, money, towns, and finally each other–violating every convention, assaulting morality to the last breath? It’s been quite while since I’ve witnessed dramatic characters with this much absolute thinking and vehement passion. That’s what makes it so groovy. The addition of The Loneliest Monk, a Chicago rock-art duo, playing a live original score, creates the perfect unifying and satisfying bohemian touch.

What’s not so groovy is the monstrously amateurish first act. “We tweaked and tweaked and tweaked the writing to get it to the point it is now,” says Executive Director, Jason Ewers. “There were scene sections we just didn’t know what to do with. But what attracted us to this early Brecht work was just how raw it was.”

Perhaps then, that obnoxious term, work-in-progress, still applies here. The actors still have to gain better mastery of Brecht’s language. Some actors do not have the heft and projection to deliver it, while others attempt to build dramatic tension by shouting lines. The ensemble cast is cohesive and meaningfully responsive to each other, but work on clarifying and personalizing the subtext to all that heavy-duty poetry remains the bulk of unfinished work for the first act.

Thank goodness the difference between first and second acts is like night and day. Thank goodness A. J. Ware and Hunter Kennedy’s direction brings on full-bore pansexuality, as well as the physical and emotional devastations of amoral excess. Baal and Ekart are a fabulously doomed couple, even if Baal is the more fabulously doomed of the two.

Finally, it needs some nudity. Seriously. That’s not a prurient suggestion. Okay, it is. But is it in keeping with the spirit of Decadence.

One can shake ones’ head in astonishment at the way this particular show swings from depths to great heights, but no one can deny EP Theater’s ability to take risks. Its capacity for daring and risk wins it respect, even with this significantly flawed and unfinished production.

Rating: ««