Jean Genet’s The Balcony, now playing at the Access Theatre, has always been a play with a lot to say. The 1957 satire is part polemic and part love letter to all our pet perversions and the masks we put on. It spins an enchanting web of illusion while stripping down the fallacies of political posturing, celebrity, and the puppets and props of state and romantic revolutions. Like much of Genet’s work, The Balcony is a play about pretense and the nature of theatrics and role-playing—it’s worth noting that many of his plays were cast untraditionally (The Maids for example, was first performed with a pool of male prisoner-actors presenting women in one of the author's many stays in the clink). The Horizon Theatre Rep’s production has a decidedly more narrow and unambiguous focus than is the fashion for the piece, touching less on the broader themes of affect and being-other and more on the anxiety of a real-world Europe on the brink of economic and political collapse. This context is markedly different from Genet’s time where the threats to Europe and his native France were largely non-domestic but the concept holds water, even when the execution doesn’t.
Welcome back to Irma’s brothel, reimagined here as a swanky hotel room (satin sheets and oaken tables furnished by scenic designer Joseph Kremer) in the contemporary financially-pressed Eurozone. The atmosphere is complete with preshow and intermission clips of some modern, real-life riots on a TV upstage center. Our madam’s house of illusions features all her regulars: poor unfortunates who, in her own words, are “props of a display that they have to drag through the commonplace.” They all go to Irma’s to assume the togs and manner of the powers that be. On the docket are a “Judge,” a “Bishop” and a “General” each with a corresponding fantasy and girl (the Judge is into S and M, the Bishop the penitent, the General his horse and his funeral procession). Traditionally Genet’s play literally elevates these patrons to be “larger than life” having them wear the platform shoes of old tragedians and garish, clown-like makeup; in this run these fripperies are nowhere to be seen.
Irma keeps up the smoke and mirrors so long as her patrons are paying and so long as the revolution roiling in the streets outside doesn’t catch her business in the crosshairs. It doesn’t help matters that one of her regular visitors, the Chief of Police, George, has taken a special interest in Irma’s work, and that a former employee (Ines Lucas’s Chantal) has absconded with a plumber named Roger (Matt Gottlieb) to become the face of the rebellion.
Under the direction of Rafael De Mussa, who also plays the Chief of Police, the ensemble bring some of the more disturbing strokes of Genet’s work to the surface. By downplaying the absurdity and slapstick in the scenes where the brothel patrons live out their fantasies the play-acting seems to have a bit more teeth. In the scene with the General, for example, played taciturnly by Jon Obayashi, he does not “mount” his barbed steed of a prostitute (Alison Paula Campbell) and so we are made to focus on his lyrically macabre account of his funerary motorcade as underscored by military tattoo. This moment doesn’t elicit laughter, though sound designer Jon Brenner’s needle scratches in the middle seem to want to prompt them. Almost none of the established trappings of the stock roles of the clergy, military and justice system, short of Amanda Shafran’s capable costume design, are present here.
The few affectations (mostly accents—De Mussa’s Spanish and Zoe Watkins practiced cockney as the Judge) in the playing of these parts seem arbitrary and inconsistent with the world already established. Often this delivery results in skipping over some comedic beats which does have a tendency to make some of the more tender or complicated scenes with Irma and her assistant, Kimmie Solomon’s artless Carmen, short of sticking the landing. Maria Wolf is an appropriately arch Irma and Carlo Giuliano as the Envoy give the piece a much needed lift post-intermission when the deviant pretenders are put in place to form a puppet regime to quell the resistance.
While not my favorite production of The Balcony, and not one I would recommend for someone’s first encounter with this masterpiece of meta-theatricality (if you can, read it or see the 1963 film; Genet has a very clear aesthetic that really paints a picture) Horizon Theatre Rep’s production has a point-of-view and something to say about the world today. I just wish a bit more of the humor on the page made the jump to performance.