By Jean Genet
Produced by Scena Theatre
Reviewed by Ronnie Ruff
Pardoned career criminal Jean Genet’s controversial gem The Balcony was first staged in 1957 in a private London club. Genet was banned from the club during the run due to his charge that the production was too tame. Three years later in New York, words such as ‘perverse’ were used to describe this play that rails against political oppression.
A revolution rages outside the walls of the House of Illusions. Inside, men indulge in fantasy play, imagining themselves to be a judge, a general, a priest, and a bishop. When the revolutionaries topple the Royal Palace killing the Queen, the Chief of Police conscripts the patrons into service as their fantasies, and the Madame becomes the Queen. The brothel becomes Genet’s platform to examine the power of images and politics and how they corrupt society. The play was the talk of the absurdist movement in the fifties and Genet was something of an anti-hero.
Scena Artistic Director, Robert McNamara’s vision of Genet’s play offers a visually stunning display of color and costume that is as good visually as anything I have recently seen. From the opening scene we are cast into a titillating display of power and skin that continues throughout the play. A deep red backlit runway leads to the brothel’s weathered door. A bright red drape spans the room from the balcony to the left side of the audience. Sadly the Warehouse’s built-in balcony is underutilized.
The wonderful costumes designed by Alisa Mandel are a scandalous mix of excess and erotica, Black lace garter belts and G strings on stage with the flowing, ornate robes of a bishop provide a visual collage of creative design rarely seen outside of the largest theatres. Platform Doc Martins are another symbolic nod to political power making the powerful men tower over their minions. This is one play where the costumes have an important role to play and Ms. Mandel makes sure they are front and center.
Over the decades, the play has lost a bit of its ability to shock, but the large talented cast of fifteen led by Rena Cherry Brown as the brothel’s Madame, throw themselves unflinchingly into the roles. Ms. Brown, Buck O’Leary (The Judge) and Frank Britton (The Envoy) stand out with powerful performances.
Clocking in at just over three hours including intermission, this bath in Le Théâtre de l’Absurde places demands on the audience. Nevertheless , Scena’s The Balcony is well worth your attention.
The Balcony runs through July 1 at The Warehouse Theatre, 1021 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets are $27 – $30, with discounts for students and seniors. Purchase at the door, or online.