Gosh, French writers can get tiresome. They're so smart, so interested in harrumphing endlessly about all the things they see and you don't. I mean, where else but in France could this become a popular slogan: "People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth."
Forget for a second that it's probably true — it's not catchy enough to matter. For some French people, it actually became something of a rallying cry. Not like Lithuanian Emma Goldman's apocryphal "If I can't dance, I don't want to be in your revolution" or the American (and entirely more to the point) "You deserve a break today." No, the French like their wordiness, their dizzying intellectual flights. I figure this has to do with a guilty conscience over World War II. France folded, and historical archnemesis Britain didn't. So French intellectuals had to spend the next three decades convincing themselves that nothing really matters anyway just to be able to wake up feeling all right. But pardon me. This is about Genet.
Jean Genet is sort of an archetypal French figure, or at least a takeoff on one. His early bio reads like Rimbaud lite (the juvenile delinquency, the association with the wrong elements, the stirring up of trouble, the homosexuality), and you can bet that in recounting his youthful exploits to biographers, he exaggerated the similarities. Never betraying what we now understand to be the intellectual party line of 1950s France, he wrote about masks, illusions, role-playing. Like fellow French smarty-pantses Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault, his stance was essentially a hyperliterate take on the worldview of Holden Caufield, who tripped through the landscape of modern social life crying "Phony!" at everything he saw. The thing about condescension and orgies of allegory is that they're fun. If they weren't, the French wouldn't have anything to do with them — these are the people who invented absinthe, for Chrissakes. We should be grateful to the colleges of the world who give this stuff a chance to see the light of day in the 21st Century. Nobody else would give us the chance to think about Genet, at least in South Florida. If Mosaic Theatre tried taking on Genet, it'd get booed out of Plantation.
But not FAU. It can still do it. Its theater students need to learn about the stuff, and it presents a really good opportunity for them to woodshed their acting chops in difficult roles. Genet's The Balcony is not an easy play to put on: Every few minutes, its wordiness threatens to slip into incomprehensibility. You've got to work hard to make a script connect with an audience when so often that script seems uninterested in connecting with anything but itself.
FAU's The Balcony is set in 1960, in a brothel in Algiers in the middle of the Algerian War for Independence. The folks running the brothel try to forget about the revolution taking place outside. The real world, Madame Irma knows, is far less interesting (and perhaps less genuine) than the fantasy universe she creates in her brothel's studios. Studios is her word, and it's apt: This house of ill repute is considerably less vanilla than most such establishments, dealing not in sex but in fantasy role-playing.
We meet men paying to play a bishop, a judge, and a general. For some reason, Madame Irma is nervously awaiting the arrival of George, the chief of police. Eventually, he shows up, and then, through some surrealist bump in the Algerian political process, Irma is a queen, George is some kind of hero-cum-dictator-cum-monarch, and the men who play-acted the bishop, judge, and general are actual bishop, judge, and general. (There is no mention of how this development went over with Pope John XXIII.) They wave to crowds of adoring former revolutionaries. One of Irma's old employees, Chantal, who recently quit to join with the radical Islamic cause, comes to hiss down the "decadents." She's shot; people cheer some more. Then the newly empowered monarch watches from "The Balcony" as a newcomer is ushered into her fantasy studios, where he pays to play-act the role of George. When that's over, Irma tells the audience that its existence is no more genuine than the make-believe universe of the brothel (or the theater), and then we go home.
Although old-fashioned French critiques of social artifice probably hold some water, they're also so ubiquitous in modern discourse that to restate them in a theater is a little redundant. You know all of this already. So don't expect The Balcony to blow your mind. What's fun about the text is following its wordiness, soaking up its language, feeling like you've been transplanted to a weird alternate universe where the rules of logic and ordinary communication have been upended.
But don't go for the text. Go for the students. Some of the undergrads at work in The Balcony perform about as well as you'd expect such untried young things to perform in so demanding a piece, but there are also enough moments of real inspiration to warrant the ticket price many times over ($16! A steal!). Especially Alexandra Antonopolous, who plays a whore playing a horse for the edification of the play-acting general (Aaron Scott, whose delightfully skeezy portrayal seems based on Jon Lovitz). When she talks about her "flanks," she's not selling her horsiness to the audience; she's selling it to the general, and she's so good at it that, dear God, you actually want to ride her. Just to feel the wind in your hair.
Really, though, the show belongs to grad student Rebecca Simon, who plays Madame Irma. Watching her here, you kind of wish she'd find a production of McNally's Masterclass to star in. She's got an astonishing gift for just about everything — last year, when she starred in A Bright Room Called Day, I figured she really was the punky teenager she played there. In The Balcony, I can't believe I saw her do that only a year ago. Here, she's mature, poised, altogether together, displaying a simultaneous soulfulness, meanness, and austerity that makes her actual physical age irrelevant. She is a madame — there is a gritty reality to her portrayal that makes even Genet's craziest, most self-referential lines seem organic and true. It's a shame she'll be out in the noncollegiate theater world soon. It won't offer her many roles like these.