The students of The Boston Conservatory bring Jean Genet’s complex, hallucinatory play "The Balcony" to highly stylized life with an energetic production that’s full of music, dance, color, and electricity.
Director John Kuntz, using a translation by Bernard Frechtman, updates Genet’s 1957 play about an upscale bordello called The Balcony and the clientele who seek solace in its chambers even as a revolution rages in the streets. Among them is a man who likes to dress up as a bishop (Grant Wallace) while inducing a bordello employee to engage in a plethora of sins. Another of the bordello’s "guests" prefers to act out sadistic scenarios while wearing the robes of a judge (Trey Harrington). Then there’s the woman who dons a general’s uniform (Jessie Muni) while engaging in lesbian play with a bordello worker in horse drag.
The owner of the house, Irma (Niki Sawyer) oversees the bordello’s operations with a strict, almost stern, demeanor: "A smile means doubt," she tells her assistant, Carmen (Grace Tarves), who also happens to be her favorite from among her "girls." To be sure, Genet foresaw--and this production underscores--the sexualization of aggression: We live in a culture in which models no longer look friendly, and advertisements portray love as a contest of wills.
This is true even among the revolutionaries, led by a young man named Roger (Keith White) and his lover Chantal (Meredith Myers), a woman so lovely that she’s treated as a sort of secret weapon. Their romantic connection is complicated, and challenged, by their quite different senses of purpose and their mutual unwillingness to compromise. Perhaps they have a point: With bullets flying from parapets and cellar windows alike, the time in which they find themselves is not one for indecision.
It is an occasion, however, for reinvention. The play’s most piquant observations tie up with nasty, but darkly satisfying, neatness when the same guests who sported in the costumes of society’s leaders are presented as those leaders in order to fill a power vacuum after the government falls. Artifice and reality swap places deftly and with minimal fuss; indeed, it seems to be the case that no one even notices, other than those who orchestrate the switch. A more caustic, yet perpetually timely, comment on the workings (and the nature) of political power and social order is hard to imagine.
"The Balcony" was so shocking to audiences 54 years ago that even Parisians couldn’t see it, and it premiered in London. Far from apologizing for the lines "The Balcony" crosses, Kuntz, together with his young cast and crew paints the work with bold colors, updating the action (remote controls, video projection, swarms of paparazzi, and contemporary music all play a major part here) and embracing the erotic charge of the material. It’s hard to say which is more provocative and funny: The ’Dance of Love, Tears, and Sperm,’ or a scenario in which an enthusiastic bordello guest is relegated to the status of one more ingredient in a dish being prepared by an escort dressed in a classy cook’s garb and wielding eggs, milk, and a beater to uproarious effect.
This production may be the work of students, but it’s professional grade in every respect. Lit up with sex and sorrow, and awash in color and style, this production is populated by archetypes familiar from daytime television. What’s dismaying is how those same archetypes occupy the evening news. Are we looking here at a fantasy? Or is this simply one more mirror image from a house replete with mirrors? Indeed, aren’t we all essentially guests, as well as workers, in one great big flesh-industrial complex?
But the most cutting comment of all takes place at the very start, and might not even be deliberate, though it’s certainly of a piece with the play’s day-glo thematic fabric. The usual start-of-play announcements warn about cell phones and recording devices, but make no mention of what to do "in the unlikely event of an emergency." Whether it’s a Freudian oversight or a particularly cunning nuance, this omission acts as shorthand for the play’s central message: Human affairs are always in a state of crisis--and there’s no escape.