Deathwatch / The Maids
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 29, 2005
Egress Theatre Co., a young and ambitious new troupe founded and headed by Andrew Bielski, is currently performing Jean Genet's Deathwatch and The Maids in repertory. I chose to see Deathwatch because I've never seen or even read it before; The Maids, in contrast, gets done all the time (we've reviewed two revivals just this year on nytheatre.com). I think in retrospect that Egress's real accomplishment here is likely to be juxtaposing these two works side by side with a single director and ensemble; if your schedule and constitution permit—for these are not easy plays to watch—you might consider the full evening of Genet that Egress offers on Saturday nights. I suspect particularly that it will be edifying to see how these skilled young actors tackle such different roles (prisoners in one piece, serving girls and mistress in the other) in the space of one night.
But here's my take on just Deathwatch. First, it's not as complicated a play as The Maids, which is a cool existential puzzle as well as an indictment of classism and the ruinous effects of inequitable economics (among other things). Deathwatch, at least in Bielski's rendition (there's no translator credited), is principally about power. Two inmates sharing a prison cell compete for dominance in their constricted little universe; a third prisoner determines the current balance, but in this weird dynamic never has any real power of his own and ultimately proves dispensable to both competitors. Deathwatch is a brutal play and also a jolting one in its callous indifference to ordinary societal norms: these men have carved out their own code of "ethics" that has only a little to do with the ordinary laws and mores of civilization. In 1949, when it was first produced in France, the play's homoeroticism must have been exceptionally shocking to audiences; today, this aspect of the work almost feels quaint, so often has the power of that particular taboo been exploited in drama since then.
I looked at my copy of Genet's script and he calls for the three characters to be very young: Green Eyes and Lefranc, the two bullies vying for dominance, are in their early 20s, while Maurice, the callow and worshipful subordinate who shares their cell, is just 17. Actors Brendan McMahon (Green Eyes), Nicolas Warren-Gray (Lefranc), and William Fraser (Maurice) all seem several years older than these ages, which I think eliminates some of the play's rawness. They also seem socioeconomically better off than I think Genet intended: Green Eyes, for example, is illiterate, but McMahon didn't convince me that that was really the case—the desperation of these overgrown boys, which has led them to this awful place and to ascribe to the dog-eat-dog code of this place, isn't quite realized here.
Nevertheless, the actors give a credible reading of Genet's work, and Bielski does a remarkable job staging the play in the extremely intimate confines of the CRS playing space (which is essentially a small open quadrilateral room converted into the sparest of theatres, with a tiny platform surrounded by folding chairs, and just two or three lighting instruments). The extreme closeness of the actors to the audience reinforces the claustrophobia of these men's existence, and also—in the fight sequences, which are spectacularly well-choreographed and executed—the danger.
This is a worthy production, all things considered, and an impressive enough introduction to Egress's aesthetic to make me look forward to whatever they're planning to do next.