Angry Young Man: Brecht’s first play comes to EP Theater

The eponymous main character in Bertolt Brecht’s play “Baal” shares his name with an ancient Phoenician deity and a Christian demon–fitting, as his personality is both radiantly charming and deeply perverse. Baal is a talented young poet, an unabashed hedonist, and a certifiable sociopath, traits which in the course of the play come to seem increasingly inseparable. His wild-child persona and oft-lurid verse win him many admirers, among them the men he drinks with and the women who share his bed. Of those who are drawn into Baal’s orbit, however, few escape unscathed, and at least two die at his hands.

The play is Brecht’s first, written in 1918 when he was 20 years old. The time period would be difficult to guess just by watching it, though, as “Baal” draws from several different eras for its style and themes: The opening scene, in a tavern flanked by jeering men and a couple of coquettish women, recalls Shakespeare’s bawdy humor and prefigures the play’s modern address of gender relations. Baal himself is an amalgamation of ages, romantically enamored of natural beauty but with a modern aimlessness and nihilism.

Though “Baal” is billed as a “live music spectacle,” its percussion-and-cello accompaniment (an original score by local art-rock duo The Loneliest Monk) is unobtrusive and complements the action well. The set design–which consists of two levels–also fits the play’s mood and movement, though the lighting leaves something to be desired.

“What attracted us to this early Brecht work was just how raw it was,” Jason Ewers, EP Theater’s executive director, told the Chicago Theater Blog. The rawness comes through in EP’s production, both in its palpable emotion and its at-times disjointed and confusing shifts in location and time. The poetic language doesn’t contribute to the clarity, either–but, like a poem, it draws you in, and gives the impression it would only get better with re-reading.

From the first scene, when Baal (Craig Cunningham) holds forth on the joys of hedonism before an audience both rapt and disgusted, he pushes the bounds of common decency. Early on, though, he’s still an attractive figure, and his listeners encourage him to put his talent to use. Instead, he uses his charms to seduce women–before ultimately humiliating and rejecting them–and wreak other havoc with his friend and lover Ekart (Shawn Pfautsch), an aspiring composer. The two actors have admirable chemistry, first appearing as young comrades-in-arms against social convention, but eventually emerging as very different people, Ekart the far more human of the two. Not even their friendship can survive Baal’s destructive tendencies, however, and as one might predict he meets a tragic and lonely end.
EP Theater, 1820 S. Halsted St. Through October 3. Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 8pm. $12. eptheater.com