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A CurtainUp Review

"So, this is a song about a guy named Clive who died "— The first words by Clive (sung) so I'm not giving anything away.
Ethan Hawke as Clive
Clive is subtitled as "a play in 21 shards" all of which are "based on, inspired by stolen from Brecht's Baal" and retold by Jonathan Marc Sherman. Clearly, Sherman and director and title role player Ethan Hawke added this playful tag line to prepare audience to expect their visit to the New Group's home at the Acorn Theater to be a detour from the common sheep track. And indeed it is, though it's a detour that not everyone will find worth taking.

This newfangled adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's first full-length play has certainly been a double challenge for Ethan Hawke. As the title character, a dissolute circa 1990s rock star, he's not only donned a white-blonde wig but occasionally sings. As director his challenge has been to get the audience to buy into his friend and colleague Sherman's surreal updating of Brecht's designed to shock story about a post World War 1 poet.

Hawke's performance is quite spectacular, and well supported by his cast. The play itself is likely to irritate and befuddle many viewers. Actually, underneath all the wild and wooly doings this is essentially a simple story of a talented man who destroys himself and people who cross his path with his often cruel hedonism. Nevertheless, Clive would be likely to lose quite a few audience members if there were an intermission.

Since Hawke opted to run right through all 21 of the "shards" without a break, he would have been well advised to persuade Sherman to trim the script to play out in 80 or 90 minutes. That said, this is a physically stunning production, and so, even if you don't warm to Sherman's Brechtian vision of Clive''s coke sniffing, ruthless womanizing trajectory towards an unsurprisingly grim end, the striking stagecraft and performances can be appreciated like a visit to a gallery exhibit with its images enlivened by terrific live models.

Derek McLane, who also designed Hawke and Sherman's last collaboration for the New Group,(Things We Want), has outdone himself in dividing the wide Acorn stage into playing areas that allow for fluid scene shifts (oops, I mean shard shifts). If I had to name the real stars of this enterprise it would be McLane for supporting the many locations with his inventive and easy to navigate scenic design as well as the fascinating music and sound sculpture artists known as Gaines whose wizardry includes doors that serve as instruments.

Since we know that it was Bertolt Brecht's play Baal that inspired Sherman's modernized copycat or adapted version, some background on what was going on in Brecht's world when he wrote it in 1918 and rewrote it eight years later.

As Clive is an anti-hero so was Brecht's poet a man who wasted his talent by indulging his immoral, hedonistic proclivities. He was named Baal for an evil biblical character. The play was written in 1919 when Germany was still reeling from World War I and the young scribe, who'd seen war's madness as a medical orderly was unwilling to present audiences with feel good plays about peaceful solid citizens rather than violent characters. By the time Baal was first produced in 1922, Germany was beset by the economic problems of hyper inflation and when he rewrote it in 1926, (the same era depicted in Cabaret), a general air of greed and cruelty was gaining momentum.

Brecht may well have seen Baal less as a villain than a rebel against a society with declining morals, and I suppose Sherman saw this as relevant enough for our troubled times to re-jigger the play. But his borrowing makes the fanciful renaming of scenes as shards a rather lame claim to something more than just plain adaptation. After all, Clive's descent from rock star into starving and ill fugitive follows Baal's debauchery quite closely. Even the transformation of the poet into a rock star isn't an enormous leap of the imagination since Brecht included a number of songs.

That leaves the heavy creative lifting to Mr. Hawke. It's his task to present the various bacchanalian parties and cruel interactions vividly and as strong acting opportunities. No complaints here. Hawke has indeed devised a production filled with eye popping images. One particularly memorable scene is in a hospital where we find Sophie after she's had the baby Clive rejected and where he shows up apparently to seek detox treatment. It's pure Marat-Sade madness.

Of the nine actors only Hawke and Vincent D'Onofrio as his ill-fated best friend Doc don't play multiple roles. For fans of D'Onofrio's long running gig on Law & Order Criminal Intent it's a treat to see him demonstrating his live acting chops — which he does with verve and vigor.

Standouts among the multi-taskers multiple role players include Zoe Kazan and Brooke Ashmanskas. Kazan, who made her New York stage debut in the New Group's production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and who was also part of Hawke and Sherman's The Things We Want, here she takes on the seduced groupie who ends up drowning herself and the rejected mistress. Ashmanskas, best known as a musical theater actor, is excellent as the second of the three multi-tasking males listed only as 1st Man 2nd Man, 3rd Man

Given that this is based on the work of the very young inexperienced playwright who became one one of the most prominent figures in the 20th-century theatre the problems with Sherman's script may be with the source material. However, since Baal is rarely produced this is also a rare opportunity to see a talented team give it their all. The New Group is to be commended for putting its resources into giving a litle known play a new life,

Though probably not planned, this production is also especially well timed to rekindle interest in Brecht's work. This month also brings The Good Person of Sechuwan, a Brecht fable I've always liked, to Manhattan. It's at La Mama's Ellen Stewart Theatre under the auspices of the Foundry Theatre which, like the New Group, can always be counted on for intriguing productions. Teirs also has an interesting lineup of performers— and yes, it features songs. (For details about cast and schedule see Curtainup's Off-Broadway Listings).

Clive by Jonathan Marc Sherman inspired by Bertolt Brecht's play Baal,
Directed by and Starring Ethan Hawke
Cast: Brooks Ashmanskas (2nd Man), Ethan Hawke (Clive), Stephanie Janssen (1st Woman) Mahira Kakar (2nd Woman), Zoe Kazan (3rd Woman), Aaron Krohn (1st Man) Dana Lyn (4th Woman), Vincent D'Onofrio (Doc) Jonathan Marc Sherman (3rd Man)
Set: Derek McLane
Costumes: Catherine Zuber
Lighting: Jeff Croiter
Sound: Shane Rettic
Music & Sound Sculpture: Gaines
Fight Director: David Anzuelo
Stage Manager: Valerie A. Paterson
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes without itermission
New Group at Theater Row (212) 239-6200
From 1/17/13; opening 2/07/13; closing 3/09/13.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 PM and Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM with matinees Saturday at 2 PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at February 1st press performace
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