nytheatre.com review by Bess Rowen
July 20, 2012
A room covered with aluminum foil is an example of the kind of low-budget visual spectacle that characterizes the current production of Bertolt Brecht's early play Baal. For all of the wonderfully translucent effects the play contains, the aural components undercut the wonderful visuals. In other words, I would have liked the play much more if I had heard most of it. Unfortunately, the soundscape made this nearly impossible.
Peter Mellencamp's very modern-sounding translation is combined with Alec Duffy's blocking to highlight the violence in the script. Baal is a narcissistic poet, a drunk who is both a misogynist and a womanizer. Nothing is sacred to him. Throughout the play people are continually blinded by his brilliant poetry, forgiving and ignoring his heinous treatment of others.
Alec Duffy, who serves as both director of this play and artistic director of the JACK performance space in Clinton Hill, utilizes every part of Mimi Lien's dynamic set. The talented actors, led by Jason Quarles as Baal, run, jump, walk, and crawl about the area. The audience members are told ahead of time that the best view comes from standing in the center of the space and moving about to follow the action. With a run time of about 90 minutes, comfortable shoes are suggested.
For those who know Brecht's work, elements of the performance will seem very familiar. Perhaps the most obviously Brechtian touch is the way the actors assist each other with the technical elements of the show, making the mechanisms of the stage effects visible. The characters themselves exist in the general Brechtian theme of highlighting the dark side of human nature, but this early play has not yet come to the point of making a clear statement about these traits.
The play is dark and tragic without much to balance it out. Amith Chandrashaker's lighting helps add to the haunting visuals, which is what the audience must rely on if they cannot hear what is occurring. The music, done by Steven Leffue with drummers from the Kaoru Watanabe Taiko Center, is fitting, but there is the problem of balance. The volume is so high, especially with a large drum in the small space, that the sound itself becomes violent. Just as the general rule in lighting design is that you need to see the actors, the general rule in sound design should be that you need to hear them.
Instead the production actually works against the actors' voices and their performances. As it stands, as good as the Hoi Polloi theater company's team is, the play itself is a hard sell. With physical, aural, and thematic violence, the piece is a very heavy 90 minutes with no real closure. For those interested in Brecht, it is a great example of a contemporary theater company doing a very contemporary production of his work. Yet this production falls into a trap of allowing some of the conceptual interpretations of the play block the audience from being able to experience the play itself.