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Marlon Brando's character said it most succinctly in the 1953 film The Wild One. When asked what he was rebelling against, he replied, "Whaddya got?" Three years later, Jean Genet's play The Balcony would make the cop-hating character of Johnny seem an adolescent punk. Choose a target, and chances are Genet either mocked or condemned it: religion, the military, the legal system, revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, rich people, poor people, reason, emotion.
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The only thing that emerges unscathed from the torrent of Genet's inflammatory critique of hypocrisy and artifice in real and imagined life is the act of prostitution, which plays a major role in this play, since most of it is set in a brothel, called the Balcony. But what a brothel! While some of the studios may feature actual sex, the rooms that bear witness in Genet's frenetic imagination are those in which ordinary people dress up as bishops, judges or generals and enact bizarre rituals of power play, barking at or pleading with their paid whores.
But there's also a revolution going on. And soon, these quite-ordinary people are exalted to the positions they merely fantasized about. Or maybe they're not. It's really hard to tell because The Balcony is one of the most mind-fucking plays to ever ejaculate from a brilliant, if profane, mind. It's an undeniable masterpiece of 20th-century theater, but one that is so dense and superficial, so volatile and ambiguous, so revolutionary and yet steeped in the trappings of traditional theater (lofty language, ornate costumes) that it's as difficult to wrap one's mind around as it is to mount.
And that makes it so fitting as the first show to be produced in longtime Weekly contributor Dave Barton's inaugural season as programming director at STAGEStheatre. Never one to shy away from the polemical or the perverse, it's a wonder it's taken so long for the man who formerly helmed the Rude Guerrilla Theater Co. and the Monkey Wrench Collective to get around to doing The Balcony. And while it's an obvious choice for Barton, it's a bold step for STAGES, Orange County's most established storefront theater and one that has mounted its fair share of deep, heavy, dark plays, but has also paraded an equal amount of audience-friendly, non-threatening pieces (one reason why it has lasted 21 years).
And make no mistake: The Balcony is a threatening play. It's anything but escapist entertainment. The battles Genet wages, the targets he rails against, the assault on the values and rituals of what he sees as a corrupt and indolent society—none of these is limited to the character or forces in the play. This is also an attack on theater audiences, a house of mirrors designed to reflect what the playwright viewed as the distorted reality we all accept, consciously or not.
Directed by Barton and Jeremy C. Hohn, this production does a fine job of capturing the trajectory of Genet's fevered imagination. Yes, it's quite long (nearly three hours, counting two intermissions), and it's tempting to tune out during some of the longer passages, but the ensemble hurls itself at the material with abandon. While there seems to be an element of menace or gravitas missing (Genet himself said the scenes in the brothel "should be presented with the solemnity of a Mass in a most beautiful cathedral"), the cast mines every bit of humor possible. Sean Hesketh, as the Bishop, and Adam Poynter, as the General, are particularly effective in being both perverse and parodies of themselves. Equally funny is Jack Millis' turn as the Envoy, who is probably the closest thing to a stand-in for Genet in his brutal honesty yet equally ambiguous flair.
But where this production most shines is in its two most important roles: Irma, the brothel's madam, and the corrupt Chief of Police. Cynthia Ryanen and Rick Kopps are outstanding: complicated, cunning, ruthless, soft, tortured, vain, powerful and powerless. If they never worked again on a local stage, they'd leave legacies based solely on their performances in this play.
There is a lot to write about any production of The Balcony. And people have done so, exhaustively at times. Answers to the myriad questions that may be raised in an audience member's mind do not surface easily. Nor should they. Just as Genet was one of the most fascinating literary figures of the most recent century, The Balcony is one of its most fascinating plays. It's best to walk in with whatever reference you have, and then spend some time trying to figure out what you just watched, and then research it. It's worth it.
And don't worry if you see yourself in the play. Literally. The three long mirrors that frame the back of the stage are constant reminders that we are just in a theater, merely watching a play. What happens in that theater is no more real than what goes on in our homes. The masks we choose to wear, venerate or believe are no different in or outside the theater. And we're all in this weird fucking existence together. Just as a judge needs a thief to legitimize his role, or a bishop needs a sinner, a play needs an audience. We are all johns and whores, all engaged in our own private—and public—Balconies.
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