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Animals! Camelot and Baal 

Civilization falls on its face

Thursday, Jan 21 2010
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"Why are they doing this now?" This was a snippet of overheard conversation in the courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse during the intermission of Camelot — Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1960 musical, now playing there through February 7. "This" referred, I think, to the musical itself, about King Arthur and his installation of a nonhierarchical Round Table at the castle, for a delegation of worthy knights to debate vital issues of the kingdom.

Among the king's political precepts, according to Camelot, based on T.H. White's 1958 fantasia novel, The Once and Future King, is that "might makes right" should be replaced with "might for right" — that violence is an unacceptable way to mete out justice, and that war must be replaced with diplomacy. We're talking about the Middle Ages, by the way.

But we're also talking about allegory. The year Camelot opened on Broadway was the same year J.F.K. squeaked by Richard Nixon in the presidential election. We were headed into an era of hippies and yippies, and what might be called a social revolution, guided somewhat apprehensively by the fragile, flickering beacon of American liberalism.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZ - Can you guess which one's the queen? Stoeke and Warne as Arthur and Guenevere in Camelot
  • Photo by Craig Schwartz
  • Can you guess which one's the queen? Stoeke and Warne as Arthur and Guenevere in Camelot

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A lyric near the show's close has been applied to the fleeting ideals of J.F.K. and L.B.J.'s Great Society:

"Don't let it be forgot/that once there was a spot/for one brief, shining moment/that was known as Camelot."

Back to the question, "Why are they doing this now?" Parallels are easy to find between J.F.K. and the nascent Obama administration, and America's hunger for change, for something more civilized than crashing in, by mistake, on another country, the wrong country, as though we were Huns who'd drunk way too much beer.

Though his actions may support his words only dubiously, Obama's speeches contain the ideals of civility, the rule of law, of fairness, of what used to be called equal opportunity. They're only words, but Camelot is only an allegory. The reason for performing it now seems abundantly clear.

Director David Lee takes what is generally regarded as a spectacle with a cast of zillions, period costumes and lavish sets, then strips all that away for an eight-actor ensemble working on Tom Buderwitz's minimalistic set of platforms and girders, with a suspended moon overhead. Maggie Morgan's costumes are half contemporary, half medieval, just flavors. To depict winter, an actor attaches a single tree branch to a high crossbeam. For spring, the branch has flowers. When Arthur's Excalibur emerges from the "stone" (through the floor), we see it attached to somebody's large arm and hand, which come up through the floorboards. All of this straddles a divide between the imperatives of economic efficiency, remedial theatrical devices, and a winking mockery of both. It's hard to tell if this is a concept, or an apology for the budget restrictions being passed off as a joke. Wish it were bolder.

The crux of the story concerns a love triangle among King Arthur (Shannon Stoeke), crowned from his legendary, singular ability to pull out the aforementioned sword; his bride Guenevere (Shannon Warne) and the interloping knight from France, Lancelot (Doug Carpenter).

In a barbaric world, Arthur tries to install a rule of law. What, then, should he do after he deliberately leaves his wife alone with Lancelot and they're seized by Arthur's bastard son, Mordred (Will Bradley), and arrested for treason, being together in a chamber? Problem is, Arthur loves his wife. He really loves her.

Mordred's name encapsulates what we're supposed to feel from his presence — more dread. He's the guy who leads a chorus of "Fie on Goodness" — which ranks up there with an adage from the '70s: A liberal is someone who has never been mugged. Mordred's the guy ushering in a new/old era of barbarism and greed, which will mark the end of Camelot, the snuffing out of an idealistic flame.

Musical director Christy Crowl directs a chamber orchestra in the pit, nicely modulated in Vikram Kirby's sound design. The production's strength comes from the muscle of Loewe's glorious songs, cleanly rendered by the actors. Carpenter's vain Lancelot has the swagger and richness of Robert Goulet, who originated Lancelot on Broadway, and when Warne's Guenevere croons "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood" and "The Lusty Month of May," her songbird vocal dexterity melts all resistance. The musical approach of Stoeke's goateed Arthur is more cautious, matching his approach to the character. This renders the king — originally played with almost hubristic self-confidence by Richard Burton — ambivalent about his principles, and effete in his manner. So when Guenevere, instantly attracted to self-important Lancelot, reveals vicious determination in trying to have the source of her lust killed, and you compare her to her gentle, meticulous hubby Art, it becomes a challenge to fathom who's the queen here. This wouldn't be worth mentioning were the plot's main tension not hanging on an erotic triangle.

What that dimension offers, however, is perhaps a deeper reflection of platonic love than Lerner and Loewe may have imagined. This is kind of interesting, too, though not as sexy.

Very nice support also from Andrew Ross Wynn, Richard R. Segall, Zachary Ford and Seth Daly.

Violent, debasing animal impulses drive the title character of Bertolt Brecht's first full-length play, Baal, written in 1918. Based on a god referred to in the Old Testament, via texts from northern Syria, Ba'al was the storm god, like the Greek Poseidon. Delivering water to parched lands, Baal also became a god of fertility, and the play delves the psychology of his sexual impulses, and how they crash into the thin veneer of civilization (not unlike Guenevere goading her knights to kill Lancelot from some combination of sadism and lust).

In director Ben Rock's sensual and visceral staging of Peter Mellencamp's profane, poetical adaptation, now playing at Sacred Fools Theatre Company, Gregory Sims performs the title character with the primal seductiveness of the young Al Pacino, growling through the play, as though he's borrowed Tom Waits' voice.

Jennifer Fulmer's set design consists of rolling platforms forged into circles and triangular shards. As in Camelot, a moon hangs suspended. Here, though, the moon is encircled by layers of those spearlike triangles. And though they're static, these appendages are positioned as if they've been caught in some kind of swirling orbit. Announcer Andrea Walker introduces scenes from video monitors that snap and crackle.

Baal spends considerable time ruminating on sundry hypocrisies of civilization. He mocks a literary critic (Paul Plunkett), and he deflowers the girlfriend (Megan Rosati) of his gentlest and most earnest admirer (Marcus McGee). He does all this while licking his lips. Remorse? He's an animal. Debasement is his theology.

Baal may be the inverse of King Arthur, which makes him a far more dynamic protagonist. Arthur's attempted journey is into the higher reaches of idealism. Baal's is into the mud, where men belong, where they will rest. And there's little more compelling than watching base cruelty such as his somehow tethered to a force of nature. Brecht, too, knew that civilization is fleeting — civility even more so. His view is not so different from that of Camelot, even if he tells his story from the other side of the looking glass.

Rock's production is sometimes labored as Baal's downward trajectory — which involves the jealousy of his friend/lover, Ekhart (Donal Thomas-Capello) — becomes more than evident. These are truth-seekers spiraling into the mud. Yet the production's sensuality matches its sincerity. The ensemble is terrific, with particularly nice cameo performances by Jaime Andrews, Jay Bogdanowitsch, Alyssa Preston and Alexis Wolfe.

CAMELOT | By ALAN JAY LERNER and FREDERICK LOEWE | PASADENA PLAYHOUSE, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena | Through Feb. 7 | (626) 356-7592

BAAL | By BERTOLT BRECHT, adapted by PETER MELLENCAMP | SACRED FOOLS THEATRE COMPANY, 660 Heliotrope Drive, L.A. | Through Feb. 20 | (310) 281-8337

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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