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Theatre Preview: Brecht, but before the communism thing

German playwright was better read than most, but is also dead

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It's got drinking, fighting, the solicitation of prostitutes and a healthy dose of misanthropy. While it might sound a lot like hitting the town with Scott Stapp, it's actually the University of Calgary drama department's production of Bertolt Brecht's most famous early work, Baal.

For most people, mention of the famous German playwright will conjure images of intentionally sloppy-looking sets, monotone monologues that acknowledge the audience directly and high-minded scripts that are designed to force thought about society, rather than develop any kind of emotional connection to the characters or plot. This style, known as "Epic theatre" or "the Vurfrumdung (alienation) effect," was developed by Brecht after he adopted communism. While often lauded as "brilliant," it could also be criticized as being both "boring" and "lazy." Early Brecht--like Baal--however, has none of his later intellectual trappings.

"To be honest, I'm not really interested in Brecht's work after he becomes a Marxist zealot," says Mike Fenton, director of the drama department's production of Baal. "This was written before that. His earlier works were coming more from Brecht the poet. They deal with both verse and prose, and don't really do the alienation thing. This is not a pedantic show."

Instead of seizing the means of production and casting off his shackles, the titular poet/anti-hero of Baal hits the German countryside, drinking, fighting and screwing his way closer to artistic enlightenment and, inevitably, the grave. Despite its outward appearance, though, the play isn't nihilistic.

"I think it's quite important to get across the amorality of this character," says Fenton. "He isn't amoral like a nihilist is amoral, though. He's amoral how a baby is amoral--he just wants things. He's seeking out some kind of artistic integrity, pleasure, and ultimately nothingness."

When Brecht wrote Baal, he did it in German, which was the fashion in Germany at the time. As much fun as running Brecht through Babelfish would be, a proper translation is still a big part of a solid performance.

"I think the translation is a very important part of the text," says Fenton. "My translation is from the '60s, but I took some liberties in the contemporizing of the thing. I went through a bunch of different translations, and eventually decided on the one that had the most evocative imagery."

It doesn't get much more eye-catching than a skinny german guy galavanting about, sometimes punching people, and sometimes--not always, but sometimes--having sex with them. And if punching and sex don't make great theatre, then nothing does.

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