“Baal” is an experience — not just the titular character but an aesthetic, a lifestyle — complete with wrist bands, an open bar stocked with complimentary wine and a live Electro pop band (New Haven’s The Simple Pleasure). The University Theater is unrecognizable in this production, transformed into a post-apocalyptic German drag club called Nachtwolke (“night cloud”) where frenzy rules. The audience — on stage in risers, seated at the bar or around small tables on the sides of a central playing space — is transformed into club patrons and fully integrated into the gritty world of the play.
Brecht’s “Baal” (his first play, written in 1918) is staged within this environment, put on by the staff of the club, framing the production as a play within a play. This is far from a “Kiss Me Kate” scenario, though. The lines often become blurred: Much of “Baal” takes place in seedy bars, with Nachtwolke representing each of them. And the actors who interact with the audience at the beginning as Nachtwolke employees will later interact with them as bartenders and servers in the play. This blurring, though, doesn’t compromise the integrity of the concept, but rather keeps the play from being comfortably contained. The play-within-the-play bleeds into the world of the club and the world of the audience.
This is not to say that Brecht’s alienation effect is entirely missing — being thrown into and jerked out of 22 scenes with 44 different characters represented by 10 actors prevents the audience from emotionally engaging and forces the intellectual participation that Brecht desired of his spectators. “The Hymn of Baal,” a ballad that Brecht wrote to open the play, is broken up in this production and interspersed throughout the performance as entertaining and effective transitional moments. These moments — set to music by The Simple Pleasure’s Chad Raines and sung in the original German with translations projected onto the set — serve to interrupt the action and allow the audience to reflect. Still, more overt nods to alienation (one actress runs off stage, pulls out a fake pregnant stomach and screams, “This fucking play!”) are infrequent, jarring and less effective.
“‘Baal’ is the story of a poet’s unquenchable sexual desire, unspeakable violence and unmatched lyricism,” writes Suzanne Appel in the press release. Bryce Pinkham DRA ’08 marvelously captures the nuances of Baal’s dark psyche. Prowling around in a magnificent and disgusting feather-trimmed jacket, he is despicable and undeniably magnetic. It is unclear to what world this creature belongs: He is the only actor who does not have an underlying club persona, and he is the only one who does not return for the curtain call (a somewhat difficult-to-read choice, as the actor who plays “Baal” does appear bopping around on the stage’s various television monitors).
Imposing an over-arching concept on a work that does not explicitly call for it runs the risk of losing certain elements of the play that don’t quite fit. Though the German-themed nightclub is a remarkably appropriate and effective setting for “Baal,” the performance does not completely avoid this risk. Baal himself fits perfectly into this debauched world, but some of the lesser (and particularly the more innocent) characters get swallowed up by it, unable to pop out from this dismal background the way that they ought to. Most problematic, though, is the inability for beauty to exist in this world.
Much of the success of “Baal” relies on Baal’s “unmatched lyricism,” the beauty of his language juxtaposed against the crude, vulgar violence of his actions. In a moment of reflection towards the end of the play Baal marvels to himself, “It was all so beautiful.” We are to take this as sincere, but it isn’t quite right. The aesthetic of the production often overwhelms the beauty of Baal’s poetry, so that the beauty meant to shine from this grotesque beast only dimly flickers. The audience is still left with conflicting feelings about Baal, as Pinkham succeeds in making Baal frighteningly alluring, regardless of the language. The production still achieves what it should, simultaneously dazzling and revolting the audience with an exhilarating and overwhelming environment, but sometimes at the cost of Brecht’s words.