The University of Calgary drama department’s production of Baal hits like a sucker-punch from an LSD-crazed ape man and doesn’t stop pounding against the audience’s bruised, raw, throbbing faces until its last gut-wrenching moment. In short: this first main stage performance is absolutely not to be missed.
Baal, written by Bertolt Brecht in 1918, follows the story of a young poet as he debauches his way across the German countryside in search of artistic enlightenment. Virtually every possible sexual combination of guys, girls and inanimate objects takes place at some point, and a lot of people get thrown to the ground, punched or hit with things.
All the pamphlets and posters advertising Baal have been open about its explicit content, but no words can illustrate just how torturous the constant sexual violence and gleeful nihilism is to watch. It’s established early that Baal (played by Phil Keyes) has a kind of superhuman sexual draw, and even his interactions with willing participants feel artificial and revolting. Indeed, the most uncomfortable moment in the entire performance is realizing just how well Keyes is able to sell his character’s snakelike libido.
That said, the sexuality, like the rest of the explicit material, is dealt with maturely. It’s pushed far enough to force a combination of empathy and disgust on its audience, but never far enough to be pornographic. This is assisted by the mostly-seamless modernization of the script, with select portions altered to hold more emotional weight with a modern audience. Certain parts of the update, though, like the anachronistic addition of a Snoop Dogg song, would have failed utterly if not for the excellent performances all around.
Keyes’ portrayal of Baal, while ultimately successful, is troubled. He performs the part in an expressionistic style that makes it feel as though he was going for something like “interpretive-dancer-cum-lounge-singer.” He’s able to present the threat of the character effectively enough, but some of his better lines are robbed of their gravitas by his roller coaster inflections and over-the-top emotional responses compared to the rest of the realistically-played roles. But as the character falls further and further into delirium by the second half, Keyes’ performance style starts to feel not only appropriate, but necessary in representing the world through Baal’s eyes. Combined with Keyes’ increasingly bestial movements and bruised, bloodied appearance, the character of Baal comes across as inhuman until the bitter end, but also piteous and relatable just before.
It goes a long way to representing Baal’s twisted state of mind, but the unfortunate flaw in the chosen approach is that it’s only possible to care about him just before the finale. Until that point, the burden of emotion is placed on the supporting actors. A risky move to be sure, but the young men and women who fill in the cast are, in no uncertain terms, the best part of the show. As Baal slithers about the other characters in his unnatural, symbolic way, their reactions are at once both realistic and haunting. With every weeping, pleading victim of sexual assault, it takes a conscious effort not to look away. Every time Baal breaks the heart of a man or woman it pulls at that cord in the stomach usually reserved for kicked puppies and burn-ward children.
Despite all the good things it has going for it, and even as a play that can be effectively summed up as “sex and violence,” Baal doesn’t hold much mass-appeal. As it is, the performance has the unmistakable flavour of being made by theatre nerds, for theatre nerds. While the layed-on-thick blend of theatrical styles is one of Baal‘s strengths, casual vieweres will likely feel ostricized or confused.
Like a car accident, Baal is irresistible in a macabre way, but it also demands that it’s audience step way out of their comfort zone, and then forget they ever had one.