REVIEW: Baal (TUTA Theatre)

| May 26, 2010
   

It’s Bros before Ho’s, Brechtian Style

TUTA BAAL - #1

   
TUTA Theatre presents
  
Baal
  

Written by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by
Peter Tegel 
Directed by
Zeljko Djukic
at
Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through June 20th  |  tickets: $20-$25   |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Perhaps no one could accuse Bertolt Brecht of being a feminist. But TUTA Theatre’s production of his first play, now at Chopin Studio Theatre, easily lends itself to feminist critique of its patriarchal constructions of rebellion and artistry. Whether or not that was the playwright’s original intention, Zeljko Djukic’s compelling direction opens up examination of all the impulses and beliefs that drive its protagonist, particularly regarding gender construction. Baal (Ian Westerfer) may be the ultimate artistic outcast and iconoclast. All the same, he does not rebel against the codes of masculinity that allow him to abuse women and murder his best friend at the suggestion of homoeroticism.

TUTA BAAL - #2 But first, a critique of the production: the show is brilliant. If you haven’t yet heard that Baal is Jeff recommended, then you heard it here first. That accolade that will be seconded by every critic that has eyes to see and ears to hear. Djukic has developed cohesiveness in his ensemble that would be the envy of many other productions; their unity reveals itself with each fluid moment and inspired scene change. Dramatic transformations carry emotional weight from scene to scene, until the entire wicked fabric of the play unfolds in a rich, decadent tapestry that, nevertheless, maintains its Brechtian distance. For all the cunning by which that effect is wrought, this is a production to run to.

As for the eponymous lead, I really don’t like using the word “star” in Chicago theater. But Westerfer, as Baal, is a star–a man on fire. He is both the Poet as subversive pop idol and a sly Brechtian parody of that very notion. He is an actor who goes the fullest limit of his outrageous role yet never overreaches or looses control. Lucky him, he gets the lushest language of the play; his use of it never disappoints. Peter Oyloe pairs Westerfer accurately and admirably as Ekart, Baal’s bohemian partner in crime, but clearly, the show is Baal’s. Every effort done by the rest of the cast, especially mastery of Brecht’s language, sets Baal at the epicenter and supports him completely—like water that buoys the floating arrow in a compass pointing north.

The centering of Baal within each environment he’s placed is the quintessential dynamic in this clear and sterling translation by Peter Tegel. Whether in the company of posh German elites, ready to publish Baal’s works in order to boost their own image—or singing before rough crowds at a low-end dive—or in the presence of women who show up for furtive sex at his attic flat—or on the road with Ekart–at an insane asylum—dying before of the sort of merciless men he’s known all his life—Baal’s reactions to all these environments reveal his strongly held beliefs and excessive character. Baal acts out, a perpetual motion machine of absolute contrarianism, but his acting out alone would be meaningless a vacuum. The image of the German Expressionist artist in his pre-Nazi environment awakens Brecht’s dramatic interrogation as to the value of such an artist.

TUTA’s production never forgets that delicate balance between the outsider artist and the cynical society through which he passes. What looks like bawdy roughness and uninhibited abandon is really action constructed and choreographed with military precision. That the cast makes it look so friggin’ effortless is the knee-slapping wonder of this show.

Now, on to the feminism: Baal’s serial abuse of his women lovers forms the main action onstage. But his attitudes toward women and sexuality are not simply born of his defiance of the cramped, hypocritical, bourgeois conventions of his time. They spring equally from his culture’s conceptions of masculinity and the outlaw artist. In fact, besides the warrior or the criminal, the rebel male artist may be the uber-masculine figure of Western Civilization, one that repeats itself interminably to the present day. “Bros before ho’s” is a sentiment far more ancient than its current hip-hop expression and Baal is certainly not its first or only representative, in art or in life.

The wonderful paradox about a figure like Baal is that he can rebel on one level, yet conform to age-old gender constructions that allow for the abuse of women. Baal spurns the middle class sycophants who offer his art patronage. His open insult to their offer is fabulously defiant, a theatrical delight. His rejection of middle class mores regarding sex and gentility toward women gives him access of women’s bodies without all that ridiculous, sentimental love stuff. Whether the middle class males Baal mocks have more respect for women as persons than he remains an open question. But Baal’s extreme adherence to working-class masculinity allows him to abuse women as he feels they deserve.

“This play must be approached on its own terms, which is one of drunkenness. Baal is drunk on women, wine, and principle; and the actions of the play’s inhabitants must always be seen through this lens”–so writes TUTA’s dramaturg, Jacob Juntunen, in the program notes. No kidding. Among the principles Baal is drunk on are those regarding his uber-masculine artistic revolt. To drink heavily is masculine, so Baal drinks by the bucketful. To beat one’s woman is masculine, so of course he slaps his bitches around. To fuck women without attachment is masculine, so he fucks the whores and throws them to the other guys. To get them pregnant and abandon them is really masculine, so he knocks them up and runs from the stupid cows—they’re only trying to trap him anyway.

To top it all off, once they’ve thrown themselves into the river because they’ve been fucked, abandoned, and (maybe) knocked up, he sings about their floating, rotting corpses. That’s not just masculine, it’s deeply profound and poetic. Genius–genius that allows a male artist to get away with it.

I’ve rubbed your faces in it, but so does Brecht. The real genius of his play is that overweening masculinity is not just a principle that Baal is drunk on. Everyone around him is drunk on it, too—both men and women. Women keep offering themselves to Baal, no matter how extreme the abuse. Here, women have bought into the concept of the outlaw artist as totally as the men. In such a culture, Baal gets all the tail he wants, is as abusive as he pleases, and never has to be accountable to anyone about it. As for their consent to all his unprincipled sadomasochism, some women are more consenting than others, not that it makes any difference to our hero.

It’s here, however, that Djukic’s direction exhibits one truly mystifying flaw. In some ways, the fact that everything else flows so smoothly contributes to it showing up like a sore thumb. Toward the end of the play and Baal’s friendship with Ekart, out of jealousy Baal rapes a young woman who is Ekart’s lover. The rape is portrayed in truncated symbolic form. Why? What is the point of pulling that punch–too violent? A previous scene shows Baal tormenting his pregnant lover, who accepts his beatings and begs for his blows instead of abandonment. In a following scene, Baal knifes Ekart in the back for suggesting, in front of their old boozy gang, that Baal is a homo. Would the realistic depiction of a rape be too much, sandwiched as it is between these brutal scenes? The choice to minimize that violence is bizarre and bewildering. If the idea is to prevent Baal from seeming too unsympathetic, then that choice is really bizarre.

Oh well, in terms of this play’s historical place, the Third Reich is just around the corner. Very soon, it will be “Kinder, Kirche, und Kuche” for the women of Germany. Perhaps worse, more hypocritical men than Baal will be enforcing those policies–but only perhaps.

      
       
Rating: ★★★½
  

TUTA BAAL - #3

 

Cast

Ian Westerfer (Baal)
Jacqueline Stone (Emilie)
Lindsey Gavel (Johanna)
Dana Black (Luise, Older Sister, Savettka, Maja)
Stacie Beth Green (Sophie)
Ben Harris (Johannes, Pianist, Woodcutter)
Rachel Rizzuto (Younger Sister, Young Girl)
Dana Wall (Mjurk, Pschierer, Gougou, and others)
Steve Hadnagy (Mech, The Beggar, and others)
Ted Evans (Piller, Bolleboll, Watzman, and others)
Peter Oyloe (Ekart)

 

Design and Production Staff

Original Music by Josh Schmidt
Musical Director Wain Parham
Scenic Design Brandon Wardell
Costume Design Natasha Djukic
Lighting Design Keith Parham
Sound Design Chris Kriz
Prop Design Joel Lambie
Production Manager Jeremy Wilson
Stage Manager Helen Lattyak
Dramaturg Jacob Juntunen


PHOTO CREDITS

1st Photo – Ian Westerfer as Baal, photo credit Natasha Stojkovic

2nd Photo – Ian Westerfer and Stacie Beth Green, photo credit Vojkan Radonjic

3rd Photo – from L to R, Dana Black, Rachel Rizzuto, Lindsey Gavel, Ian Westerfer, Jaqueline Stone, and Stacie Beth Green; photo credit Vojkan Radonjic

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Category: 2010 Reviews, Bertolt Brecht, Chopin Theatre, Paige Listerud, TUTA TheatreChicago

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