Language Laboratory

Jean Genet is one of the bad boys of the Twentieth Century. Abandoned as an infant by his mother to the French public welfare system, he relished his position as a social outsider all his life and used his identities as homosexual, prostitute, thief, and prisoner as subject matter for his literary work. His novels and plays written in the 1940s and 1950s elevated violence and perversity to an art form.

What makes violence and perversity art and not pornography? Genet was not interested in presenting the sordid, the aberrant, the exploitative, or the dangerous in order to titillate audiences or to satisfy their desire to peep. Instead the sex and power fantasies of his dramas, enacted through a blend of dreamlike states and rituals, are meant to undermine the smugness of polite society, which either represses or closets such uncensored eroticism. Through an artful mix of illusion and role-playing, using broad gestures, masks, costumes, and props, he sought, according to his early champion, Jean-Paul Sartre, "to strike at the root of the apparent," to expose "the profound unreality" of "appearance which is constantly on the point of passing itself off as reality."

While such concerns don't make for your garden-variety evening at the theater, it's exactly the mix of ideas and theatrical pomp for which Akropolis Acting Company is cultivating a reputation. The third offering of this Coral Gables-based company's first season is The Balcony by Genet. Director Marta Garcia has staged an ambitious, brazen, and often exciting version of the play, strong on spectacle but less comfortable with the subtleties of Genet's gorgeous, slippery, and ironic language.

Pass through a curtain that hangs in the doorway of Akropolis's storefront theater and enter a brothel -- the setting for the The Balcony. Take a seat at one of the cafe tables and order a drink from a waitress-actress who may or may not later assume another identity as a prostitute in one of the play's scenes. Garcia, the set designer as well as director, and co-designer Dechelle Damien have demolished the theater's fourth wall, splendidly transforming the conventional arrangement of voyeuristic audience watching the stage by positioning us in the center of the action. Here, we are implicated in the evening's events: Outside the walls of the brothel-theater, the city is in flames as rebels attempt to topple the established order; inside, however, clients seek release and expression in a series of fantasy studios, donning the costumes and assuming the stances of authority figures such as the Bishop, the Judge, and the General. The entire "house of illusions" is presided over by Madame Irma, who observes the action from TV monitors in her office as she awaits the Chief of Police, who is late in reaching the brothel because of the violence outside. As the revolution escalates, the clients are forced to assume the roles of the "real" Bishop, Judge, and General, while Madame Irma becomes the Queen in order to appease the enraged street rabble who are on the verge of anarchy. Who is real and who is posing? How far does image go in determining who controls society? And where does theater begin and end?

In her program notes for The Balcony, Garcia expresses her debt to Antonin Artaud, whose theories, espoused in his seminal works The Theater of Cruelty (1932) and The Theater and Its Double (1938), have had a far-ranging impact on contemporary theater, from the absurdist works of the 1950s and the Living Theater of the 1960s to the performance art of today. Fascinated by non-Western forms of performance such as Balinese dance, which favors movement over speech, Artaud denounced the emphasis on text that dominates Western social realism in favor of a "unique language halfway between gesture and thought." His concept of a Theater of Cruelty called for a total dramatic encounter in which actors and audiences confront the fundamental realities of human existence. Garcia acknowledges that Artaud's unique "language" is mysterious and allusive, yet it is her intention to search for it while simultaneously providing the audience with a powerful experience. On the way, she often supplants text with staging, ignoring the fundamental Genet.

Genet, obviously, was influenced by Artaud. But he is not Artaud. Where Artaud seeks to transcend language, Genet is, first and foremost, a language artist, a descendent of De Sade, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Celine in the French tradition of le poäte maudit (the outcast or accursed poet). Language and the games it plays, the lengths it goes in order to perpetuate illusion, and how it serves the imagination are as important to The Balcony as its whips and boots, its snarling and crawling, its high-drag costuming and stylized sets. When the actors are required to rely on language alone (instead of props), particularly in the scenes between Irma (Iris Delgado) and the Chief of Police (Jean-Paul Mulero), and between Irma and her assistant, Carmen (Allison Scheeren), the production loses its power to engage. The actors betray their discomfort with the text by smoking cigarettes throughout, a reliable convenience for them but a distraction for the audience.

In spite of this, Delgado is firmly at the center of the evening. The character of Irma is a rich spin on the stock role of whorehouse madam, and Delgado plays her as sexy and sophisticated. The actress is too brittle at first and uncharacteristically impatient with her clients, whom she is meant to extract payment from while at the same time pampering them. But as she settles in and inhabits the character more fully, Delgado exhibits flashes of cunning and paranoia. By the time she closes up shop at the end of the day, she addresses the audience powerfully in a final speech that is both wise and jaded, and she has us in the palm of her hand.

Most of the cast members are energetic, but Richard Martin as the Judge and Christian Vila as the Envoy are particularly notable for bringing the right amount of stylized absurdity to their roles and looking as if they're having a good time doing so; also, Thomas Beaumont as the General moves from inflamed military man to insecure plebeian with ease. On the other hand, Mulero, as the Chief of Police, huffs and puffs his way through a mostly sullen portrayal without showing the brutality required of the role or even a hint of irony.

I have to hand it to Garcia and company, some of whom are still students, for their brashness in taking on one of the major writers of our century with a great deal of panache. I would have liked to have seen the production tackle more of Genet's multilayered ideas (this was also a weakness of the company's season premiere, Marat/Sade), but I also applaud Akropolis's determination to create theater that challenges the status quo. Antonin Artaud has inspired and confounded theater artists for decades. Luckily for South Florida audiences, Garcia is on a journey to resurrect him.

Another major playwright of our times, Athol Fugard, is as concerned with power, position, and society as Genet. His settings are hardly the subjective, dream states of Genet's drama, however; instead, Fugard's work centers on the oppressive hierarchy of apartheid in the South African police state and its impact on personal lives.

His 1978 -- Lesson From Aloes, currently at the New River Repertory Theater in Fort Lauderdale, is a drama about survival, taking as its often heavy-handed metaphor the tenacious aloe plant that thrives in the South African landscape despite brutal drought. But at what cost is that survival achieved in a morally bankrupt environment? Piet Bezuidenhourt is a retired Afrikaner bus driver. Gladys, his wife, has suffered at the hands of the police. Steve Daniels, Piet's friend and former political comrade, is a black South African who has just been released from a six-month stretch in prison. In the course of two acts, the three characters confront each other's attachment to their homeland and contemplate the freedom and loss that exile might bring.

In the right hands, despite its clunky central metaphor, Fugard's play is capable of powerfully conveying the deep shame, danger, and denial that characterizes being black or white under apartheid. Unfortunately the New River Repertory's production doesn't come close to conjuring any of that. Oddly flat and ponderous, it comes across like the first staged reading during the rehearsal process, before the actors are comfortable enough with their lines to discover the fullness of their characters.

Upcoming on the national scene is Fugard's first postapartheid drama, now titled Valley Songs. Its North American opening in Princeton, New Jersey, at the McCarter Theater, was canceled because Fugard had not completed the play, but it is scheduled to come to the U.S. after its Johannesburg premiere at the Market Theater. In a career spanning four decades, in which he has persistently chronicled the inequities of his society, Fugard's latest likely will bear witness to the recent changes in South Africa.

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