By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
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