Off the Street Theatre

There are many reasons for staging Brecht’s first play, Baal, which lays the groundwork for his “epic theater.” One of Brecht’s early critics accurately called it “chaos with possibilities”: a loose construction of 21 scenes with broadly drawn characters exhibiting the full spectrum of human emotions. Filled with angst, horror, black humor, and alienation, Baal gives us the story of a tortured poet who wanders from cabarets to beer halls, drunkenly pursuing women and spewing poetry. It reads more like the libretto to an opera than a play. And Baal is a fascinating character, murderer and philosopher, hero and villain, ignoble savage, a hedonist who seems not to experience joy. He is part Dionysus, part Don Juan, part Rimbaud, part Biergarten Jim Morrison.

There are also a number of compelling reasons not to put this play on. Seen by many as a parody of German expressionism and/or an homage to the Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) movement, the play is difficult to perform outside its historical context. One runs the risk that Baal will be seen today not so much as an antihero pointing out society’s alienation and hypocrisy but as a womanizing, masturbatory asshole. The complicated script is hopelessly ambitious and littered with difficult passages.

It’s hard to say what director Paul Wolf and Off the Street Theatre had in mind when they decided to stage Baal. The play’s appeal is obvious, but the production offers little to overcome its difficulties. What this production really points up is just how hard a script it is to carry off.

Though many young theater companies do not have a big choice of venues, the decision to produce Baal on a large stage in an echoing gymnasium on the second floor of a community center has not made the company’s job any easier. Transforming this sort of space into a seedy German cabaret or foreboding forest is, to say the least, tough work. And this production does not succeed in overcoming the obstacle of the space. One is constantly aware of the basketball net overhead.

The staging further complicates matters. A number of scenes are set on the floor in front of the stage, which makes easy viewing all but impossible for anyone except the first row. If, in an audience of eight, one has trouble seeing a great deal of the play’s action, there’s a problem.

But the real problem here is the spottiness of the performances. Good acting can overcome the greatest production flaws, but these actors’ performances can be most favorably characterized as uneven. With the exceptions of Karrin Sachs, who melts effortlessly and believably in and out of a large number of characters, and David Shapiro, who does good work with the juicy role of Baal, the actors are a motley crew whose work ranges from the occasional believable moment to the amateurish stuff of community theater.

Diction is a problem. Long speeches are garbled beyond the point of intelligibility. (The cavernous gymnasium creates an echo-chamber effect, further hampering understanding.) There is the occasional mispronunciation and a good deal of mumbling; and often one has the impression, true or not, that some of the performers do not understand the words they’re saying. Without good performances, all the philosophy behind Baal is lost. I could not help taking to heart the sentiments of one of Baal’s characters, who declares: “Words! Words! No matter.”

This production also features an excessive amount of nervous laughter. In order to create the raucous characters of beer-soaked nightclubbers and bawdy forest workers, the actors are forced to chuckle loudly and unbelievably at lines that, in this contemporary context, do not seem very funny.

Finally, there doesn’t seem to be any readily identifiable purpose behind this production. No attempt is made to establish the play’s historical context. Disjointed as the play may seem on the page, there are certainly more thematic through lines than this production chooses to explore. Off the Street Theatre is to be commended for its ambition, but ultimately the play just seems strange, as if suspended in midair, presented unconvincingly and out of context. Though Baal is certainly alienated from society, this production appears alienated from the text itself–something Brecht would probably have appreciated.