The folks at Infernal Bridegroom Productions warn you at the very beginning: Bertolt Brecht's Baal is three hours long. What they fail to mention, however, is just how hard those 180 minutes will be as you hunch down through the troupe's valiant attempt to bring to life this difficult play.
Of course, any company that takes on Brecht is in for a struggle. The playwright, whose work includes the formidable Mother Courage and Her Children and The Threepenny Opera, is known for writing that resists emotional involvement from the audience. Brecht didn't want his viewers to feel; he wanted them to think. To that end, he created a motley crew of characters for his plays. Most are badly behaving, impossible-to-like antiheroes.
Brecht wrote his first full-length play, Baal, when he was only 20, and it's populated by some of the writer's most despicable losers. The title character lives a life of absolute decadence. In a series of episodes from his life, we get to watch him drink and fornicate his way through years of debauchery, until he ends up with nothing but the stars overhead.
As horrifying as the story is, Brecht's gutter-wipe of a tale is only the beginning of what's so difficult about IBP's production. In fact, Brecht, who became one of the 20th century's most influential playwrights, shows off a poet's gushing love of language and a stunning use of natural imagery in this early script. There is much to admire here. And that is precisely what gets in the way of IBP's production: too much admiration. The show, directed by Tamarie Cooper and Anthony Barilla, would get down on its knees, if it had them, and bow before the great writer.
Their reverence for Brecht comes across in the many hushed silences that siphon the life out of this production. Each line is delivered with thoughtful deliberation, and the characters pause for long, quiet stretches before responding to each other. These empty spaces seem intended to call attention to the poetry, as if the audience might miss a beautiful image or an odd philosophical musing. But the cumulative effect of these laborious silences is theatrical inertia. The energy drains out of each scene as we keep waiting and waiting for these characters to respond to each other.
The silences extend to the scene changes as well. The audience is asked to sit through some interminable blackouts while the stagehands move off a chair, carry on a table, bring on a bed. After the furniture is shuffled about, we must wait for the actors to walk out, and then we must wait for them to find their markings on the stage and put their heads and hands in the appropriate gestures before the lights can come back on. Of course, the audience watches this take place in gray light with dutiful patience, but after ten or so of these changes, one's patience begins to wear thin.
This production is also marred by some odd casting. Kyle Sturdivant's campy performances as loud-mouthed drunks and lonely vampires have established him as one of IBP's funniest clowns. But as the title character, the actor doesn't bring enough flexibility or charismatic fire to the stage. Baal is a songwriter and a poet who spends his days and nights drinking and sleeping with women. He's a sort of early-20th-century rock star, but he's also absurdly cruel, enjoying tossing off like dirty underwear the women he's slept with. He doesn't care in the least when a young virgin kills herself over him. But for all his drinking and carousing, women continue to adore him, giving up husbands and families just to be at his side. Sturdivant, who struts about in a dirty T-shirt, his eyes smudged in brown and his hairy belly bulging over his pants, fully embraces the disgusting side of Baal. But what's missing is the charismatic lover that draws women to him. It's impossible to believe that women would be throwing themselves at the dirty lout stumbling across the stage.
A better choice for the title role might have been Charlie Scott, who plays Ekart, Baal's carousing friend. Scott brings much-needed energy to the stage every time he walks out, and his quirky performance style suits the equally quirky demands that Brecht makes of his title character.
The smaller parts are so undermined by the labored direction that only Cooper, who plays one of Baal's lovers, and Cary Winscott, in a series of smaller roles, manage to make much of an impact on this production.
Any company that dares to dance with Brecht has got to be admired. He's long, he's ugly, and he's important. And this production won't let you forget it.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.