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Baal's scatological, sex-crazed poetry is strangely beautiful, as sharp and glimmering as broken glass -- qualities that are well-captured in Peter Mellencamp's pungent and playable new translation.
-- Alisa Solomon, Village Voice

Peter Mellencamp's new translation pulls no punches... the poetry reflects the romantic passion that only youth can summon... a daring evening of theater.
-- Wilborn Hampton, New York Times


August 12, 2000
by Wilborn Hampton

In a raw and raucous production of Bertolt Brecht's "Baal," Jim Simpson and his fledgling Bat Theater Company recapture the spirit and excitement of the old after-hours avant-garde.  Performed in the downstairs space of the Flea Theater on a bare, black box of a set, with a jazz trio on the side and a 10 p.m. starting time, the show rekindles a sense of adventure that is too often missing in today's theater.

"Baal" was Brecht's first play, and is infused with all the youthful passion and anger of a beginning playwright.  With a title character named for the biblical idol synonymous with evil (whose cult practiced ceremonial fornication and child sacrifice), Brecht deliberately set out to shock his audiences.  And if the theater is still capable of shocking audiences (as opposed to disgusting them), Mr. Simpson and his energetic cast provide the electricity in their updated version of this story of a dissolute poet who cares about nothing except satisfying his carnal desires.

Mr. Simpson has moved the play from Berlin to New York City in the late 1940's, the dawn of the Beats.  There are strong parallels between the two venues: people struggling with conflicting postwar feelings of guilt, disenchantment and hope while angry, iconoclastic youth sets out to change the world.

Brecht's Baal is an amoral poet whose creed is stated in an opening tableau: "Take what you can get/and when you've got it all/move on to greener pastures."  The action then follows Baal's path from dissipation to depravity to despair.  In 21 brief scenes, Baal makes his way through "bars and churches and other dens of sleaze" in a story of seduction that runs from a wealthy publisher's uptown apartment to the Lo-Life bar downtown to the poet's pad to points west.

Peter Mellencamp's new translation pulls no punches in its explicit language and makes no concessions in Baal's misogynist view of the women he uses and abuses.  The poetry reflects the romantic passion that only youth can summon and at times sounds like that of the Beats.

A cast of 14 actors play more than 30 roles, and there's really not a weak performance among them.  Michael J. X. Gladis delivers a small tour de force as Baal, giving the character a rakish charm that is all the more credible for his restraint in portraying him as evil.  Andrew Ledyard gives a subtle and mysterious reading of Ekhart, Baal's companion and nemesis.  The mood of the show, however, is set and maintained by the excellent jazz trio that plays throughout the performance.  The trio's steady background of bebop and progressive jazz evokes not only the tone of the play but also the essence of the time in which it is set.  These are real cool cats, and they help turn "Baal" into a daring evening of theater.


August 15, 2000
by Alisa Solomon

"The toilet! Best place in God's creation/Where you can calmly sit in contemplation/Your dreams are on the wall before your eyes/Your accomplishments below you, drawing flies." Such lines scandalized the first audiences of Brecht's first play, just as they were meant to do.  Barely 20 years old when he wrote Baal in 1918, Brecht had been working as an orderly in a military hospital in Augsburg, drafted out of medical school, as he once put it, to patch up soldiers so they could be sent back to the front.

It wasn't just disgust with the war, though, that inspired the nihilistic play, which follows the brutally hedonistic exploits of an amoral poet.  Brecht was also satirizing an Expressionistic tradition that glorified the poet as humanity's sole and suffering hero.

Baal's scatological, sex-crazed poetry is strangely beautiful, as sharp and glimmering as broken glass -- qualities that are well-captured in Peter Mellencamp's pungent and playable new translation.  ("In bars and churches and other dens of sleaze/Baal roars and crashes toward the cure for his disease/When he's too sick to go on, he don't even slow/He grabs the sky by the neck and drags it down below.")

Some recent, simpleminded critics have read the play autobiograph-ically to "prove" the writer's profound misogyny and shameless egotism -- as well as his bisexuality.  Creep (and bisexual) though Brecht may have been, "Baal" has much more to offer even those who are a little rusty on their German classicism, at least when a director grabs hold with both fists, as Jim Simpson has done.  Setting the play in the late-1940s U.S. and providing almost nonstop accompaniment by a first-rate jazz trio, Simpson and company have produced a lean, 90-minute descent into a particularly American postwar mania that has gorged itself into oblivion.  Insatiable, self-absorbed, and as wasteful and spewing as an industrial giant, Simpson's Baal is naughty and natty in pleated pants, suspenders, and double-breasted jacket -- incarnating the consumerism that was un-leashed in the '40s and that America has been binging on ever since.

Brecht's imagery, relentlessly insisting on the proximity of ripeness to rot, and of lust to loathing, seems to grow organically out of Simpson's setting, and the Bats, the theater's resident company of young actors, perform with poetry-slam energy that overcomes many of their technical and textural limitations, especially in the production's tight and lively first half.  Michael J.X. Gladis, in his New York debut, is a blustery, belching, balls-scratching Baal, who handles the language most delicately, enabling one to truly hear the poetry.

Simpson's be-bop "Baal" gives us Brecht's raw and raunchy universe in all its glory and rejection thereof, a world where shit stinks something awful, and for that reason alone, is the proper stuff of poetry.