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A Solemn Ex Rendition of Brecht's 'Baal'

Baal directed by Brett Egan '99 produced by Sam Speedie '99 at the Loeb Ex March 14

By Bulbul Tiwari

If the poster were anything to go by, Baal was to be an earnest, wrenching and dark drama of sunken sockets and deep grimaces. Weary of exactly such grand concepts and heavy emotions, the young Brecht wrote this play as a mild satire of late-nineteenth-century symbolist drama. This is not to say that the play is not be treated seriously but certainly not with the solemnity that the cast of Baal at the Loeb Ex did. In fact, many, especially amateurs, stay away from lyrical, intense tragedies on stage these days precisely because of the danger of ending up as hollow, over-choreographed melodrama.

There is no doubt that this sensual, mythical poem-play is extremely challenging not only by virtue of its grand themes but also because of its schizoid scenes and violent characters. Baal is the name of a fertility god, but this play, full of images of rotting food and flesh, charts the progression of an over-ripe and destructive appetite. The bohemian poet, Baal (Daniel Sussner '00), is an enormously charismatic man who desires to eat, fuck, experience and be everything, ultimately even death itself. He is forever yearning for the infinite "purple sky" and the "dark river" as he hurls himself through life. He despises the world of unctuous critics and bourgeois manners as he romanticizes the raw lower classes, but he eventually spews out both.

Given this brief sketch of the play's proportions, it is not hard to see why the space at the Ex was physically too small, especially for three hours. Nonetheless, the set design by Zak Sung '99 was one of the most impressive parts of the play: a deep, eerily colored stage with a pregnant white veil above and with thin, dry trees at the wings.

The depth of the stage was exploited to its fullest: stifling scenes of Baal's seedy attic in the gut of the stage, outdoor romantic ones in the woody fringes and a split stage for crowd scenes. The objects that took central stage were apt, given the nature of the play: a stained bed, a drinking table and a dining table.

The director was probably aware of his designer's talent and decided to include him as a figure on stage. Playing the Artist and Death, Sung was continually present not only working on canvas, but also streaking the actors' bodies with paint.

The marking of bodies, while an interesting idea, should have been fleshed out to be more than a token experimental gesture. A beefier attempt would have had heavy gothic make-up on the actors or would have physically marked Baal as separate from the rest. For besides Baal and his lover Ekart (Ryan McCarthy '98) all others are either just bodies or symbols with little or no individuality.

Such hesitation, while generally not present in the acting, marked this interpretation of the play. Baal is an intensely subjective play; its moods, speed and events are all seen through Baal's perspective. All other characters are either abused, sacrificed or mere caricatures. They are pathetic because he despises them or beautiful when he desire them. He is a figure of mythic proportions.

Oddly, Baal in this performance was played down, despite Sussner's obvious charm, power and presence. To level this fascinating bias of perspective, the other minor roles were constantly playing up their parts, detracting from the magic that is Baal.

In addition to this imbalance and the voluptuous, sensory overload in the set, there was the highly lyrical language, crazed monologues, loud bar scenes and dissonant music. It is no wonder one left the performance feeling decidedly queasy. While the play may be about saturated appetites, hangovers and bitter aftertastes, surely the audience should not have experienced it just in watching.

The most grating element of the Ex production was the pacing. Given Brecht's short, segmented scene structure it is strange that many scenes seemed interminable and remarkably static, particularly those involving group male drunken hysteria. In contrast the smaller, controlled scenes between Baal and his lovers were sharp and tense, especially those between Baal and Ekart. Homosexual themes and lesbian undertones gave a greater subtlety that was lacking in the rest of the play.

In a similar manner, Brecht's later theories on theater--the "alienation effect" cliche--were applied to this much earlier and apolitical play. Gender inequalities were also emphasized, with a view at being more political, by having the audience sit in separate male and female sections, and a lengthy last scene had Baal surrounded and tormented by all the women he had abused and discarded.

Amplifying a political angle that is only tangentially present was perhaps not the right move, especially when the larger elements of the play were not dealt with subtly enough. Perhaps the music by Roy Kosuge '99 was most emblematic of the production's problems: a few too many jarring notes.

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