If I told you that Ethan Hawke was enlisting playwright friend Jonathan Marc Sherman to adapt Brecht's Baal for him to star in (and direct) so he could sport a Billy Idol 'do, wheeze away at the guitar, and surround himself with scantily clad babes for an intermissionless hour and forty minutes in front of a paying audience... you'd probably say: gee, that sounds pretty indulgent.
And guess what? You'd be right!
|"Clive" chewed out by the mighty bear D'Onofrio.|
Photo: Sara Krulwiich, New York Times
Not much more can be said about Clive (the re-titled adaptation) that already hasn't been by the first round of scathing reviews. But I'll just add that mere self-indulgence isn't even the biggest problem with the show. The problem is Baal. Now I'm embarrassed to admit that I have never read Baal--Brecht's first play that is rarely if ever produced and/or studied today. But I do know enough to know that it's not the kind of work we now expect from Brecht. This is Brecht the angry teenager--channeling German late-romantic decadence and nihilism. (The deliberately schematic expressionistic narrative charts the slow decline and assorted crimes of a hedonistic rebel poet.) So all it would have going for it is really the poetry. Poetry, of course, is hard enough to fulfill in translation. But am I right to be extra dubious about the ability of Mr. Sherman (still known chiefly as the author of that acting school staple Women and Wallace) to match the poetry of a young Bertolt Brecht? (Especially when Sherman admits in the program to adapting the original German text via Google Translate!)
Updating Baal, as Clive does, to the Rent-era1990s might have seemed to Hawke and Sherman (and New Group A.D. Scott Elliott who has produced it) the most sensible thing to do, this choice may be the project's fatal flaw, even if its only reason for being. This muddled and pretty generic picture of punk/grunge Alphabet City ennui ends up not nearly as interesting or arresting as Baal would be in its original period of Weimar Germany--which I imagine unfolding in a series of Egon Schiele images brought to life.
The only reason, I assumed, to do this kind of "update" of Baal would be as an excuse to stage a decadent rock-concert mash-up of Brecht's basic idea. I'd be ok with that. But while Clive is billed as only being "inspired" by Baal, the adaptation isn't nearly free enough to make the concept work. Plus, worst of all: the music stinks! What there is of it, at least. Hawke does bear a properly debauched Tom Waits-style voice (or is that just Hawke's usual untrained, strained raspiness? the flu?), but he can barely get a chord out of his ever-present guitar. If "Clive" is supposed to be some magnetic rocker who packs them in at Bowery Ballroom...well let's just say you're not going to want his CD.
To end on a higher note, though, I will say I was most looking forward to Clive for the chance to see a rare stage appearance by the mighty Vincent D'Onofrio. My only disappointment he wasn't in it more. Playing the sidekick character, he seems miscast, being some 15 years older than Hawke and sporting some odd redneck accent+mustache. But when he actually does get to plant his big, big presence center stage--even for something as ridiculous as dog-whoofing--I wanted more. Come back, Vincent, come back! Forget Ethan and even Bertolt and go back to Sam Shepard where you belong!