THEATER BEAT : 'Baal': Unleashing Another Side of Brecht's Inner Battle

A Bertolt Brecht play is the last place you'd expect to find a riotous gush of romanticism. Yet a newly translated adaptation of "Baal" by Shem Bitterman and Brian Peeper at 2nd Stage Theatre illuminates the emotional wild side beneath the German dramatist's more familiar austere intellectualism.

"Baal," Brecht's first play, celebrates the life of an amoral poet whose insatiable appetite for excess, debauchery and flouting the conventions of bourgeois society leads inevitably to self-destruction.

Brecht revised the work periodically during his lifetime, and previously translated versions suppressed much of its fervor beneath the author's signature detachment and political ideology. For this production, the adapters returned to the first two versions, which contain entirely new passages steeped in naked psychological autobiography.

The resulting episodic portrait of the artist as a young brat is convincingly and passionately performed by Jon Matthews. His Baal indulges earthly impulses with the abandon of an uncaged animal even as his soul reaches for the sky. In multiple roles, the well-cast ensemble reflect the world's stance toward Baal--usually disapproval or indifference. Particularly effective are the performances from Mia Furlan, Deborah Offner and Jessica Hecht, who add layers to their generic virgin/whore characters. Paul Gutrecht is also notable as the wandering musician Baal befriends and then betrays.

Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's original score supplies haunting, introspective tonalities that emphasize the work's brooding atmosphere. The work is tightest in the more story-driven first half, and while it later bogs down in lengthy monologues detailing the poet's inner state, the unchecked excess is a powerful revelation of the author's own turmoil--a flood of feeling bursting through the restraints of intellect. With an emotional life this out of control, it's not surprising Brecht would one day try to make his Epic Theater a place of cerebral detachment.

* "Baal," 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Dec. 4. $15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

'H.I. Vato': Life of a Social Outcast

"H.I. Vato," Alberto Antonio Araiza's solo performance piece about life as an HIV-positive Latino Buddhist, unfolds at Highways with the searing eloquence of articulate personal history.

Araiza is one of the relatively fortunate ones still healthy a decade after being diagnosed with the AIDS virus. Yet in this dispassionate plea for understanding, rather than sympathy, the systematic social isolation he encountered, especially in the early years of the plague, is in its own way as harrowing as any physical affliction.

Of the first time he told someone he was infected, he recalls, "What I remember vividly is the sense of him pulling away." Losing many friends to their own fears, Araiza learned the hard way the unspoken motto of the infected: Tell no one.

He's past that--fortunately, because his story is worth telling. An engaging raconteur, Araiza straddles Latino and Anglo cultures and comments wryly on both from the perch of a social outcast.

Not surprisingly, there's plenty of denial, anger, frustration and sorrow in his narrative, yet he finds humor and strength in surprising places. The most affecting episodes are related as simple personal anecdotes--the death of his father, or a funny/sad tryst in a leather bar. On occasion, however, the impact is undermined by over-posturing. A director's hand would help shape Araiza's powerful warning to those who wait until they get some bad news before they decide it's time to live.

* "H.I. Vato," Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica . Tonight, Saturday, 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $10. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours.

'Peccadillo' Unfolds at Its Own Pace

After 20 years of marriage, the great symphonic conductor Vito DeAngelis (William Dennis Hunt) and his wife, Rachel (Barbara Beckley), know each other so well she can recite his next words even as he speaks them.

The tightly orchestrated intimacy from these two likable performers supplies most of the charm to be found in "Peccadillo," an otherwise stubbornly slight comedy that even David Rose's handsome staging for the Colony Studio Theatre barely redeems.

Garson Kanin's polite, innocuous comedy depicts the temperamental maestro's dalliance with his ghostwriter (Denise Dillard), which triggers Rachel's retaliatory affair with her own ghostwriter (Robert Stoeckle).

Both writers are ornamental devices in a plot determined never to address the uncivil consequences of adultery. Lacking the frenetic pacing usually associated with bedroom farce, these leisurely exploits of an eccentric Italian musical egoist play like "Lend Me a Tenor" on Thorazine.

* "Peccadillo," Colony Studio Theatre, 1944 Riverside Drive, Silver Lake. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Dark Dec. 19-Jan. 4. Ends Jan. 8. $18-$20. (213) 665-3011. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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