nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
March 8, 2007
An attitude developed in the '70s where many people placed little to no gravity on the consequences of their actions—and their actions were marked by having lots of sex and using a whole lotta drugs. Much to their surprise and chagrin along came the '80s with all its consequences including AIDS and debilitating drug addiction. This is a good analogy of the descent of Bertolt Brecht's title character, Baal. However, in this absorbing production, the Looking Glass Theatre has managed to pull out a few other elements of Baal's character that are hot topics for today's audience.
Baal is Brecht's first play, written 1918 when he was just 20 years old, and like many playwrights' first plays it has a certain rawness and angst. At the time, Brecht had written more poetry than plays and this is definitely evident in the play's highly poetic language. Like his main character, Brecht was frequently rebelling against or rejecting something and in this play he is reacting to the Expressionist playwrights of the time elevation of the poet to the status of humanity's soul. Instead, Brecht creates Baal (the name is taken from an ancient god of fertility whose name and character was later morphed into the Bible's Beelzebub) and makes him a despicable, amoral poet who lives to fulfill his every desire.
The play follows Baal's decline as he deflowers virgins, abandons and abuses mistresses, drinks himself into a stupor, and finally kills one of his only friends. Baal is respected by some and despised by others for his rejection of society's rules, but overall he deserves what he gets. In this production, his rejection of social norms is brought to the front by the casting of a woman in the role. This gender-bending casting works incredibly well, taking the show to a different and contemporary level of social consciousness. They don't change any of the pronouns—Baal is still a man—but his misogyny is highlighted ever more clearly through a woman's perspective. His sexual appetite for both men and women is vital to Looking Glass's perspective that gender roles are today being challenged and that there are indeed many possibilities when it comes to gender identification. Still, from my perspective there is something about this character being played by a woman that makes him a little less creepy.
Baal is a play with songs and with the exception of the opening "Chorale of the Great Baal" all the songs are sung by an individual character. Composer Alan S. Hewitt puts together a sober, jazzy trio of organ, guitar, and contrabass. Hewitt's music is evocative and haunting, like walking through a dead forest. For most of the show this mood is perfect but the music never seems to find its climax.
Director Charmian Creagle does an excellent job staging a show with many different locations. She places scenes all over the playing area and even up in the risers where we the audience are right in the middle of the action. There are a few quick set changes that she wisely keeps simple and of course there is a little music to keep us occupied. Creagle's staging is supported by great light movement courtesy of designer Ryan Metzler and a nice set design by Romanka Zajac. Rien Schlecht provides costumes that transform with ease from monk-like robes to early 20th century working-class attire.
The cast of nine plays together like a tight-knit group of best friends. The language is at times very poetic and some cast members handle the language better than others. Each cast member is asked to create several characters and most of their choices work. Sara Jeanne Asselin stands out in my memory as creating several strong characters. But it is Jadelynn Stahl as Baal who without a doubt steals the night. Her stage presence is sublime and she has a beautiful singing voice. She creates the cult of personality it takes to play Baal from the get-go and never deviates. I was mesmerized by her performance.
Baal may have shocked audiences in the early part of the last century but through clever casting and excellent direction Looking Glass has managed to give this play new life and new meaning in this century. It should not be missed.