Monday, May 20, 2013

Off Off Broadway: The Balcony

L-R: Zoe Watkins, Francesco Andolfi, and Carlotta Brentan in THE BALCONY.  Photo by Richard Termine.

By 1949, Jean Genet, had been dishonorably discharged from the French Foreign Legion, had bummed around Europe as a petty thief and male prostitute, and had been incarcerated on ten separate occasions.  His convictions had been for minor legal infractions including theft, vagrancy, use of false papers, lewd acts, et al. but, under French law, the number of his convictions still put him at risk of being sentenced to life imprisonment. Fortunately for Genet, however, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, Jacques Cocteau, and a host of other cultural icons at that time were so impressed with his literary brilliance that they successfully petitioned the President of France to set aside his sentence, enabling him to continue to pursue a literary (and politically activist) career as a free man.

Genet wrote several versions of The Balcony (arguably his best play) in the late 1950s and early 1960s but the shortened version best known to American theatre goers is that based on the English translation by Bernard Frechtman that was first staged at Circle in the Square Theatre in New York and directed by Jose Quintero in 1960.  That version of the play was set in an upscale brothel in an unnamed country (inspired by Franco’s Spain), in which the brothel’s clients played the roles of powerful individuals (an army general, a bishop, a judge) while their real life counterparts were engaged in a revolutionary uprising in the city’s streets.

Horizon Theatre Rep’s current revival of The Balcony at The Access Theatre in downtown Manhattan sticks pretty close to that scenario (although it has been re-set with the furnishings of an upscale hotel suite rather than those more typical of a bordello and has been re-interpreted to reflect the economically inspired demonstrations currently taking place throughout the Euro Zone rather than the Spanish Civil War.)  The play’s dominant figure is still the brothel madam, Irma (Maria Wolf) who directs all the performances in her house of mirrors, fantasies, role-playing and illusions- and does so superbly.  And her principal clients are still The Bishop (Jacopo Rampini) who forgives a sinner, Carmen (Kimmie Solomon); The Judge (Zoe Watkins) who punishes a thief (Carlotta Brentan) with the assistance of the Executioner (Francesco Andolfi); and The General (Jon Okabayashi) who rides his horse (Alison Paula Campbell) – all of whom turn in fine performances.

It is within this context that Genet explores the dual issues of (1) dominance/submission (both for individuals and for classes within society) and (2) reality/illusion (issues which have engaged him in most of his other works as well).  Here these issues come to a head when the Queen’s Envoy (Carlo Giuliano) comes to report that the “real” Bishop, Judge, and General have been killed in the uprising and their “fake” brothel counterparts attempt to assume their roles; when the Envoy also reports that the Queen is nowhere to be found and Irma resolves to play her role; when Chantal (Ines Lucas), one of the brothel’s whores, leaves to inspire the revolution; and when The Chief of Police (Rafael De Mussa, who also directed the play) arrives to establish some sort of control but, even more, to seek some form of illusionary immortality for himself.

Genet’s plays generally are staged in highly stylized, almost surrealistic fashion, and that is what I had expected from this revival.  But that is not what I got – which may have surprised me but certainly did not disappoint me.  Indeed, this was a more realistic rendition of The Balcony than I’ve been accustomed to seeing - from the television set presumably depicting street riots in real time to the hotel suite’s accoutrements - but it probably made for a greater clarity in coming to grips with the geopolitical problems confronting today’s world and that, after all, is just what I think Horizon Theatre Rep and De Mussa were aiming at.

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