Monday, November 21, 2011

Short Cuts: Jumping off The Balcony with The Divine Sister

A tech rehearsal for The Balcony.

In his program notes to The Balcony (which closed last weekend at Boston Conservatory), director John Kuntz tells us that he attempted to approach Jean Genet's masterpiece as if it were "a brand new play." But I got the feeling as I watched the production that what he really meant to say was "a brand new play - by me."

For Kuntz tarts up Genet with many of his own tricks - there's a lot of processed sexual sugar and (of course) plush stuffed animals on this Balcony, along with all manner of cutesy "perversity."  In one long sequence, a deadpan dominatrix smashes eggs over every inch of a hot young dude in a snug, yolk-yellow speedo.  Later we get a dance by a "furry" in what looks like "beaver" drag. (Uh-huh.)  These extended fantasies have scant foundation in the finished text (although Kuntz points to early sketches of the play as justification for his directorial antics - of course Genet rewrote those early versions, but never mind).  But a few bits are at first diverting, and at any rate the production boasts a dazzling level of design and technical bravura (the production team included Cristina Todesco, set; Jeff Adelberg, lights; Gail Astrid Buckley, costumes; Jeff Maynard, video; and David Reiffel, sound, all of them working at the top of their respective forms).  Kuntz is playing here with many more toys than he's ever been able to deploy in one of his own plays - and is clearly having the time of his life.

All this would be fine, of course, if we were, too. But we're not; gradually The Balcony proved a bore, despite all the fresh, nubile flesh on display.  And it wasn't hard to tell why.  Kuntz is a talented playwright in his own right, but basically he's a paranoid hedonist - while Genet is a kind of existential sadist.  If Kuntz is about moral escape, then Genet is about moral contradiction - but contradiction as vise, as trap.  As the seeming co-authors of this production, they basically talk past each other.

And the distance between them plays out right through the production concept. Kuntz re-imagines Genet's notorious bordello, where customers play at power figures like judges and bishops, as some sort of new-media sound-stage/panopticon (at top) - which has been brilliantly realized by the designers.   So brilliantly, in fact, that at times the technical cues alone hold our attention.  And the TV studio, and pop in general, is Kuntz's home territory; the mix of glee and dread with which he regards them is effectively his artistic signature.

But even he has to admit that the blandishments of television undermine the basic tenets of Genet; indeed, the director himself openly wonders in his notes whether the revolution that frames The Balcony can even happen in the environment he has conjured.  And he's right - it probably can't.  The real problem, however, is that the multiverse of escape that new media offers is antithetical to The Balcony in even a deeper way; to be blunt, play-acting and falseness offer no way out in Genet, that's the whole idea.  It would count as a stroke of pure genius if Kuntz had found a way to square this particular circle, but he hasn't, and so few of his transgressive flourishes ever connect with what the actors are actually saying.  There's only one sequence that comes alive - when the "fake" bishops and judges have to take the place of the "real ones" once the revolution has descended into chaos.  Anxiety is something Kuntz understands, and suddenly the actors, Grant Wallace in particular, seemed to truly inhabit their roles.  But the moment proved fleeting - although all the student actors here seemed talented, and gamely played along with their directorial puppetmaster; and a few, such as Grace Tarves and poor Ryan Halsaver (the egg-boy) even struck a spark or two.  Oh, well; there's always next term, guys!

Jeffrey Roberson as the Mother Superior in The Divine Sister.

Meanwhile, across town, there was more too-gay theatre to be had in the closing weekend of SpeakEasy's The Divine Sister, which starred Jeffrey Roberson (above, of Varla Jean Merman fame) in Charles Busch's send-up of just about every nun movie ever made. Like all of SpeakEasy's recent output, the production was smart and savvy, with a crack comic cast (Roberson was a very precise hoot, while Paula Plum, Christopher Michael Brophy, and Kathy St. George weren't far behind him) that, under Larry Coen's sharp direction, nailed every laugh in the script (along with a few that weren't).    Still, things never got actually hilarious, and as I often do at SpeakEasy these days, I couldn't help but feel that the goings-on were a bit over-familiar.  I mean, gay men in yet another form of drag, in a convoluted "plot," with out-takes from yet another Hollywood genre - sometimes one wonders how long the Charles Ludlam/Charles Busch tradition (a friend calls it "Buschlam") can totter on.  (As long as there are square middle-aged straight people to laugh at it, I suppose.)

I will admit The Divine Sister struck a few poignant notes for me, perhaps unintentionally.  I found myself picking up references, clearly planted by Busch, that seemed to be flying over his own audience's head, and that indeed only members of my own aging, vanishing tribe would ever notice; I mean, who but me (and a half-dozen other fading movie queens) would have spotted the "Sister Ruth" scene from Black Narcissus?  Sigh.  Gay men today aren't even sure who Judy Garland was, for chrissakes.

And I do have to mention that in the end (whatever the print press may think), Charles Busch ain't exactly Ryan Landry, and Coen's broad, Gold-Dust-Orphans M.O., which treated the entire play as a long-form sketch, kind of flattened the few sequences (such as the Mother Superior's encounters with a woman of the world whose home she needs) that hinted at - well, almost a theme.  In his own weirdly alienated way, Busch is concerned with moral poise (as a variant of feminine poise) - and the idea of his movie convent literally being forced into the secular world I think should have struck us as slightly more resonant than it did - even if it was draped with gags from The Trouble with Angels, Song of Bernadette and even The DaVinci Code.  But then again, probably only the queers like me who remember Black Narcissus could even tell that anything was missing.

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