Genet (1910-1986) was a proto-punk playwright and novelist, a repeatedly jailed thief and homosexual pimp who was sprung from life imprisonment by none other than Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau. The Balcony, regarded as his theatrical masterpiece, is typical of Genet in its lurid setting, nasty characters and preoccupation with illusion and hypocrisy, all projected less through action than through high-flown language that is nevertheless laced with profanity. In terms of language and character debasement, it doesn't seem all that rough today, but it was sufficiently disturbing in 1956 to run into trouble with the French censors.
The scene is a brothel in a 1950s European city (essentially Paris) ravaged by civil war. This is not just any whorehouse, though; it's a "house of illusions" where the gas man and the plumber can rent time in a specially decorated "studio" and indulge in elaborate sexual fantasies--"solemn ceremonies," the madam calls them--while impersonating either the most powerful figures in society (generals, judges, bishops) or the most powerless (beggars, lepers).
Because the madam, Irma, has also catered to the social elite (they're the ones who pretend to be lepers healed by apparitions of the not-quite Virgin Mary), she fears that the revolutionaries closing in on her district will destroy her bordello. As it turns out, though, an envoy from the toppled power structure persuades Irma and her "visitors" (she won't call them "customers") to assume the mighty roles they have been playing in those dark, private rooms. Not that any of them have to know what they're doing; merely by presenting themselves to the public on the brothel's balcony, they are able to assume their identities. Fine-tuning comes from press photographers, who train them how to pose their way into their new careers.
Of course, once their fantasies come true, they find it far less appealing to be authority figures than they had imagined. From the beginning, while playing with the prostitutes, they were clearly controlled by their desire for power, even subjugated to the illusion of power. A man who pretends to be a judge orders his "thief" prostitute to be beaten and whipped until she "confesses" her crimes, but by the end of the session, he's the one who's groveling on his knees.
One prostitute, Chantal, who breaks away to join the revolutionaries, is forced to play a role outside the brothel, taking on a sort of Marianne responsibility, but instead of waving the tricolore bare-breasted to the barricades, she sings the insurgents to victory. Chantal is very possessive of this role, even though it confines and exhausts her.
Meanwhile, the chief of police, a man with true authority, despairs that he won't really "arrive" as a public figure until his own role becomes iconic enough to be used in a brothel fantasy. Ultimately, even this authority figure is powerless.
A production of The Balcony comes down to a struggle with Genet's themes rather than fine acting and stagecraft. Not that there are significant reasons to complain about Rogue Theatre's actors and designers, but this is really a talky, quasi-absurdist philosophical game of illusions, not a traditional storytelling play. It becomes muddled in the end, too; Genet rewrote the conclusion four or five times, and he never did get it right.
The script drifts through a series of fuzzily presented ideas and goes on to excessive length. The Rogue production, which includes two intermissions and some brief musical and mute interpolations, stretches to almost 3 1/2 hours. As in so many aspects of his life, in The Balcony, Genet was his own worst enemy.
Director Joseph McGrath wisely resists tarting up the proceedings, as if this were a Madonna photo spread in a Victoria's Secret catalog; that's the easy way out, and McGrath is more interested in conveying Genet's words and ideas than putting on the Rocky Horror Existentialism Show. Yet he errs in excessive restraint. While costume designer Cynthia Meier's investment in Wonder Bras surely did much to lift and separate the production budget, there's otherwise little here that is particularly erotic, lewd, fetishistic or titillating. We'd hardly know that sex is involved; only when Bill Epstein, as the Bishop, shivers and caresses his silk garments do we suspect there may be something sticky in his boxer shorts.
The leading players in the 15-member cast acquit themselves well, although McGrath's sense of restraint bleeds some of the darker colors from a few characters. The always-reliable William Killian, for example, seems a bit too benign as the Judge, and Terry Erbe's Chief of Police isn't really vicious enough. But the restraint pays off among the prostitutes, who are the most "real" figures on stage. Meier is particularly effective as the madam, Irma, rhapsodizing with joy about the fabulous "theater" she has built, while barely concealing her fear that her house of illusion could soon fall to the seriousness and reality of the revolutionaries. And, as Genet intended, Epstein, Killian and Brian Wees indulge in a rich, rolling, theatrical delivery as the pretend-Bishop, Judge and General.
One of McGrath's very good ideas was to eschew real mirrors on stage and instead employ large frames that represent mirrors; the audience can see the characters face-on as they peer at themselves, mesmerized. (Often, one character speaks to another by addressing his reflection, not his person.) As Genet wrote in his one truly clarifying remark about The Balcony, "It is--and must be played as--the glorification of image and reflection."