Bertolt Brecht’s Ba’al is a play about the power of sex, amorality and decadence that culminates in self-destruction. Written in 1919 following the armistice ending World War I, the play captures the nihilism and moral uncertainty arising from the modern world’s first widespread glimpse at meaningless violence and annihilation.
The world of Ba’al is a place where propriety and restraint appear obsolete and where shocking alternatives challenge and sometimes consume its inhabitants. Brecht’s audience is then charged with surviving and somehow evaluating an eerie parallel universe and recognizing that a young poet’s struggles with his humanity is a mirror of their own torturous reality.
In Ba’al, Brecht attempts to provoke the audience into responding both emotionally and intellectually to the scandalous behavior of his protagonist. By editing the original text down to a production time of just longer than an hour, Director Geordie F. Broadwater ’04 has perhaps realized Brecht’s intent more fully than the author did in his own lengthy original. Broadwater’s Ba’al is a constant, visceral experience for the audience.
The small performance space of the Loeb Experimental Theater perfectly corresponds to Broadwater’s vision for Ba’al. The audience sits intimately around the performance space, encircling the actors in a voyeuristic glimpse into this harrowing universe. In fact, the distinction between stage and audience blurs so much that the audience feels passively involved in the world of Ba’al’s.
The play opens with black-caped ballim—the Biblical figures associated with war, pleasure, sacred prostitution and virginal sacrifice—chanting an opening chorus and lighting incense in a quasi-religious ceremony. With convincing performances turned in by Robert A. Hodgson ’05 and Michael E. Moss ’03, the four ballim constantly assume different roles in the play as they people Ba’al’s strange reality. They literally drag Ba’al into this dreamlike world and then test his moral resolve by slipping into characters that alternately tempt and infuriate him.
In fact, Ba’al, masterfully portrayed by David Modigliani ’02, first appears writhing on a tavern floor, devouring scraps of bread that the ballim throw at him. The opening scene’s sensory overload also hints at Ba’al later depravity, including his insatiable desire for wine and women.
As the plot deepens, Ba’al travels a path from moral uncertainty to dissolution, and then to despair. Those influenced by the ballim who enter his life—a virgin, a priest and a woman whom Ba’al seduces, impregnates and abandons—further Ba’al’s rejection of self-constraint.
The power of sexual experience, as both a realization of carnal desire and a manifestation of power, overwhelm Ba’al’s actions. Not even the resolve of his spiritually pure lover (played by Steven J. Sandvoss ’03) thwarts his demise.
At the end of each exploratory scene, a spotlight flashes from above and shrill, discordant noise blares. Ba’al alone suffers these sensorial punishments or pangs of conscience. In time, the sounds amplify and the lights blind as Ba’al fully transforms into the destructor fathomed by the ballim.
Though viewers unfamiliar with Brecht’s work might find the abridged play difficult to follow and aficionados may nitpick the down-playing of certain themes, the work that emerges benefits from the alterations.
The concise rendering keeps the audience in a state of constant anticipation and alertness, and the movement of characters and scenes remains fresh. The emphasis on themes like temptation, jealousy, hatred and despair further universalize the play.
Modigliani’s powerful interpretation of Ba’al is instrumental in realizing Broadwater’s production. Modigliani inhabits the role in robust, full-bodied fashion, and the audience shudders with his every writhe and demonic grin. In sometimes taunting the audience, then desperately calling out for help, he forces them to see themselves as implicated, even if unwillingly, in his plight.
But despite additional noteworthy performances by cast members Sandvoss, Brooke M. Lampley ’02 and Erin Pearson ’04, the acting is uneven overall. The intensity of Modigliani’s execution and the emotions he provokes are not matched by additional subtlety and conviction from his fellow performers. Instead, some of the supporting actors deliver their lines flatly, failing to develop their characters to the degree dictated by the production’s professionalism.
Perhaps, though, it is appropriate that the audience’s lasting impressions are of Ba’al alone. Indeed, the outer, physical world dissipates, leaving only the vestiges of Ba’al’s inner struggle.
Not withstanding some weaknesses in execution, Broadwater’s Ba’al is an innovative production that maximizes the emotional potential of Brecht’s play. It portrays humanity in all its stark, shocking and terrifying guises, and then abruptly leaves the audience to contemplate the emotional aftermath of their experience.