Hoi Polloi Debuts Its New Space JACK With Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal”

Jason Quarles as Baal. Photo by Nick Kostner

Anyone familiar with Hoi Polloi‘s work knows that director Alec Duffy & co. can produce beautifully subtle and complex moments onstage. Unfortunately, if you’re not familiar with their work, their production of Baal (through August 5; tickets at the door) may not be the best way to make their acquaintance. It’s not that the show’s a failure, it’s just that it feels like it needs a couple more weeks work to solve the practical issues raised by the staging in the space (it’s the first at their ambitious new arts center JACK–see Eliza Bent’s feature in the Voice for more), particularly with regard to the sound score.

Upon entering the space, a converted bar in Clinton Hill, the audience is invited to move freely around the space during the performance, which takes place throughout. But whereas in previous shows like All Hands and Shadows (which was easily one of the best shows I saw in New York last season) Hoi Polloi put the audience in dynamic relation to the action, in Baal the choice feels mainly motivated by necessity, and aside from a couple marvelous scenes (in the asylum, for instance), the effect isn’t fully explored or exploited, with most scenes having a single, optimal viewing point. Which would be fine, but the sound sources are very fixed in place. I have no problem with really loud shows, or screeching soundscapes or live taiko drumming (by the Kauru Watanabe Taiko Center), for much of the show, particularly when the action takes place in specific areas (the bar) I couldn’t follow most of what was being said.

Certainly, this was in part the intent–forcing the audience to actively choose how to engage and establishing both auditory and visual consequences for certain choices. The problem is that the effect was muddled and seemed undirected, more randomly and occasionally distracting than fundamental. Which is unfortunate because Duffy has a fantastic way with actors, and this show is no exception.

Baal was Bertolt Brecht’s first play, a Romanticist drama about the titular poet subverting all bourgeois morality. Even in Peter Mellencamp’s widely praised recent translation, it’s still a somewhat tedious concept, surprising to those who see Brecht as more an arch-moralist and propagandist than someone who indulges in Nietzschean Superman-style angry-young-men romps. It feels like the work of someone very young, and is harshly misogynistic.

As Baal, Jason Quarles gives an often stunning performance, a roaring, intense embodiment of sheer all-consuming passion. Julian Rozzell Jr., who was so fantastic in Shadows, offers a dramatic counterpoint as Baal’s ascetically-minded friend Ekart. Rozzell imbues his character with sympathetic vulnerability as he’s overwhelmed by Baal’s fullness. A number of other Hoi Polloi regulars make often brief appearances, often playing multiple characters.

The show does grow stronger the further you go through its ninety minutes, and on the night I saw it, Mother Nature helped Mimi Lien’s set (the entire space is dressed in crumpled aluminum foil) with some beautifully coincidental special effects. As a lightening storm rolled over Brooklyn, flashes of light illuminated parts of the climax through the skylight, and as Baal’s death approaches, the poet dying alone in the woods, a torrential downpour began at just the right moment, letting Rozzell–his character crawling across the floor in search of a final moment’s communion with nature–to pull himself out the front doors into an all-too-literal sturm-und-drang.

But it never quite feels the production is firmly in control of the material, or overcomes all of the challenges the staging presents. Unfortunate, but Hoi Polloi is a great company and I suspect that once the awkward getting-to-know-you phase with their space, they’ll be in full form.

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