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Baal/Dirty Dreams of a Clean-Cut Kid

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BAAL

Sliced Bread Productions
at Club Lower Links

In rethinking Bertolt Brecht's Baal for a contemporary audience, playwright-director William Bullion states that he sees "the main character as a 1919 Jim Morrison." The rock poet who gave us "Riders on the Storm" seems a singularly appropriate model for an updated version of Brecht's first play: among the titles the ancient Canaanites bestowed upon their god Baal, from whom Brecht took his hero's name, was "rider of the clouds."

That parallel aside, Baal's story is eerily similar to Morrison's. A tavern troubadour and counterculture icon, embraced by the intellectual elite even as he's loved by the common folk, Baal is a moral anarchist whose pursuit of passion and pleasure lead him to, and finally past, the limits of human endurance. Named after the deity responsible for thunderstorms and fertility, young Baal goes to great lengths to live up to his namesake's supernatural capacity for lust and violence, creation and destruction. He ruins everyone who loves him and in several cases causes their deaths. He dies young, his system wrecked by alcohol abuse. And when he dies, he dies alone, rejected by former admirers who mock the poetry they once hailed as radically profound. As the play ends, he is crawling along the floor of a secluded cabin, hoping for one final glimpse of the stars in the sky.

But Brecht's steadfast rejection of anything smacking of pathos or preaching shows that Baal was never intended to be a cautionary tale against a life-style of excess. Written in the wake of World War I, which ruptured the political and moral guidelines that had governed Europe for centuries, Baal is a mythic drama whose subject is the primal struggle between life and death in a valueless society. Brecht's appropriation of the ancient fertility god who came to epitomize pagan evil in the Judeo-Christian tradition was a clear signal of his intent: condemned by modern Christian society for his heathen ways (just as in biblical times Baal, lord of life, became Beelzebub, lord of the flies), Baal is a weirdly heroic figure, driven by a poetic urge too gigantic to be channeled into a career and a sexual urge too insatiable to conform to standard morality.

Seeking to restore this unorthodox hero to something like his original radical vigor some 70 years after the play was written, Bullion has put together a new version of a script that has already been authoritatively translated by several Brecht scholars. Based on a literal translation by actress Kandalyn Hahn, Bullion's adaptation resets the action in an undetermined time and place that might very well be 1992 Chicago--specifically in and around the Clark Street performance-art and rock-music scene to whose audience this cabaret-musical production is geared.

The results are mixed. In part that's because the original play has many flaws--it lacks a strong narrative drive as it traces Baal's downward spiral--and because in 1992 Baal seems dated in more than its language. Our understanding of the dynamics of alcohol abuse and codependency undercut Brecht's attempt to make Baal an archetypal figure--we see him as just a sick man in need of help--while the pervasive violence of our own society robs Baal's cruelest actions of their impact. If anything, Baal is a jolting reminder of just how grim things have gotten, as we realize how shocking this play must have been considered in its day and how tame it seems now.

Bullion fails to grapple with all this. His concern is almost exclusively to make the script sound up-to-date. He's least successful when he indulges in a self-conscious jokiness whose lightness undercuts the severe irony of Brecht's original--aren't-we-clever references to sushi, for example, as well as awkwardly self-referential comparisons between Baal and Brecht himself. Bullion is most successful when he sticks closest to Brecht. Sometimes the original text proves surprisingly contemporary in its concerns: Baal's publisher, for instance, makes his fortune by depleting the Brazilian rain forest and trading in dead animals. And certainly Baal's erotic-apocalyptic poetry seems right at home in the subterranean environs of Club Lower Links, especially when dressed up with the eclectic, Bowie-esque rock score by Bullion, actors Noel Olken and Wes Bailey, and keyboard player N/A Gibson, who conducts a sharp and well-balanced five-piece rock band distinctively flavored by Lynwood Ma's jazz-pop trumpet playing.

Bullion strays farther afield as a director. For example, he turns a pair of sisters with whom Baal frolics into a drag-queen ventriloquist (Ben Ziola) manipulating a transvestite Jerry Mahoney dummy; he also interpolates non-Brecht material, including a rendition of Edith Piaf's "La vie en rose" and monologuist Katherine Chronis delivering one of her mock fan letters to Robert De Niro. Though amusing, these touches add a campy humor that sometimes dulls Brecht's bitter edge--the absurdity of watching Baal make love to the Mahoney doll, for instance, distracts us from the scene's important revelation that a young woman Baal recently seduced has committed suicide.

Much more problematic is the lead performance of Noel Olken, who lacks the necessary brutish innocence and animal charisma. Squinting his eyes shut as he grunts and lisps his lyrics, Olken comes off as a strange cross between Bobby Darin, Sid Vicious, and Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs--a parody of Baal, not the Baal Brecht intended nor the Morrison Bullion alludes to. Yet the production is built so completely around Olken that one is tempted to think Bullion's take on Baal is that he's a bad poet.

More effective are the direct, unaffected supporting performances of Wes Bailey as Ekhart, Baal's doomed lover (he's also credited for the costumes, a witty grab bag of countercultural styles); Kandalyn Hahn as the publisher's wife; Jodi Jinks as Joanna, the virgin who kills herself after Baal jilts her; and especially Michael Dowd, as a lumberjack who starts the show off with a bang by singing the "Chorale of Baal the Gigantic." Dowd's earthy vitality and potent singing are exactly what Olken's Baal is missing.

DIRTY DREAMS OF A CLEAN-CUT KID

at Puszh Studios

A musical revue about gay male anxieties in the age of AIDS doesn't sound promising--which makes Henry Mach and Paul Katz's funny, touching, and insightful Dirty Dreams of a Clean-Cut Kid all the more effective. Deftly establishing just the right tone of irony, sentiment, sorrow, and buoyancy, this cabaret entertainment depicts four gay men--two loners and a pair of lovers--reflecting on their lives as they await the results of their HIV tests. Conveyed in a series of sung and spoken monologues, the show traces each man's separate journey from adolescent confusion (thus the title) to adult self-assertion. If Mach's lyrics are often a little glibly ironic ("Waiting for the lab report / I don't need pity / 'Cause if I should come up short / It's nothing new"), they convey their characters' energy with a nice mixture of defiance and self-deprecation.

Decidedly not an AIDS-education effort--glancing references to safe sex and condoms suggest the authors assume their audience to be well-informed--Dirty Dreams is a collection of songs that often have nothing to do with the sexual-anxiety crisis of the 1980s and '90s. Clearly the authors would prefer to remember the pains and joys of gay baby-boomers' sexual self-discovery in the decades before and after the 1969 Stonewall riots, and the songs are filled with generational references ranging from Ho Chi Minh to the Walt Disney film Johnny Tremain.

But the vitality of the four-man cast, under the guidance of director Buddy King and musical director Dan Stetzel, overcomes the material's potential for self-indulgence. With good looks, good voices, a gorgeous choral blend, and strong commitment, Don Auxier, Dan Turek, George Smart, and Dan Ferretti transcend their surface stereotyping (a fey androgyne, a leather daddy, a preppy student, and a hippie hunk) to communicate believable individuality and emotional texture.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carolyn Kaster.

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