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Pissed Off and Pissed On

When Jean Genet started to write for the theater in the late 1940s, he had firmly established his credentials as an incorrigible thief, a homosexual and a poet. It’s become trite to attribute too many aspects of one’s character to upbringing, but circumstances must have played a role in Genet’s view of existence as an upside-down business with fits of pointless brutality linked to sexual confusion. Genet was born in Paris, the illegitimate son of a woman who abandoned him to the state, of which he was a ward until the age of 21. He did get placed with a family in the village of Alligny-en-Morvan, where his foster mother hoped very much he would become a priest. He did just that, in a way, writing for the theater, but that’s surely not what she had in mind. As a child in Morvan, Genet spent hours in the backyard outhouse, reading, thinking. The toilet was his throne, and it informed his view of humanity with its smell and what in his autobiographical novel, The Thief’s Journal, he called its “lightness.” Priests show up in many of his plays — hypocrites mostly. Almost everyone’s a hypocrite in Genet’s world, or, to be less judgmental, wrenched by contradictions and psychosexual madness. In The Balcony, set in a brothel, those in power — a bishop, a judge, a general — dream of being humiliated, while the humble lust for power. A revolution unfolds outside as well as inside. A revolution may be caked in blood, but it’s just the turning of a wheel, and history is littered with them. Genet doesn’t call for revolution. He reflects on the psychological architecture and inevitability of it in a post-colonial society. A revolution also unfolds in The Blacks: A Clown Show, now at Evidence Room in a rare revival. (Genet’s The Maids and The Balcony show up all over the place, but few people here, including the Evidence Room producers, had ever seen a production of The Blacks.) L. Kenneth Richardson’s staging flows and ebbs masterfully and musically, with a mostly excellent mixed-race cast (Genet intended that it be played entirely by black actors) cavorting across Snezana Petrovic’s multitiered circus set, festooned with candy-stripe ribbons. The Blacks are an ensemble of performers re-enacting the murder of a white woman — whose flower-bedecked, white coffin rests within a tribal circle center stage — in order to earn appropriate condemnation from the ruling class (here dressed in Ann Closs-Farley’s 18th-century costumes and wigs), lording (and sometimes snoozing) on a platform above the black performers. Periodically, the aristocracy takes interludes to bark out the latest stock-market reports, like the Halliburton of Algiers. But it’s all a performance, upper level and lower. “Keep your own life out of it,” the players’ gleefully manic director, Archibald Wellington (Michael A. Shepperd), keeps warning his minstrel-show actors, as a “real” assassination attempt appears to emerge. And so, amid the play within the play within the play, reality implodes and camps form. There’s the killer, Village (the silky Victor Love), a pimp for all seasons, struggling — at the urging of August Snow (the powerful, bodacious Cesili Williams) — to contain his tenderness, to push it down, down into black hatred, the purest motivator for killing the white woman. Then there’s the appeaser, Diouf (Bradley Spann), a moderate Uncle Tom, with all that entails. He winds up playing the victim for the re-enactment in drag and a mask. He/she knits demurely as her end approaches. In her end is her beginning. In death, she ascends with the name Marie, as in Antoinette, the executed queen of France who was critical of government deficit spending, the plight of the poor and the excesses of royal privilege. Officials accused her of treason when the government came under siege — a painfully familiar modus operandi used against people of candor and conscience. The seductress, Virtue (Uma Nithipalan), is actually a whore — not surprisingly, since Genet turns everyone inside out. “I am white,” she proclaims — a black woman in blackface, costumed as though, running from a Kenyan jungle, she got dunked in a Nevada cathouse and emerged with a pair of fishnets and nipple rings. “It’s milk that denotes me,” she continues in a powerful trance. “It’s the lily, the dove, the quicklime and the clear conscience, it’s Poland with its eagle and snow.” Lyrical stuff in Bernard Frechtman’s translation, but does she mean to glorify the color white and the symbol of virtue on a stage where there’s neither? Is she trying to appease the aristocratic court (the queen, the judge, the governor, the missionary, etc.) who watch her performance from the platform on high? Nithipalan gives a hypnotic rendition, against the gently erotic rhythms of John Zalewski’s sound design, but, in a show of this nature, though the big symbols are clear enough, the burden is on the audience to discern the ­authenticity or the mockery in everybody’s words. This is because the play is a mirror staring at its own reflection in a mirror. The lack of reliable evidence in language is Genet’s point, or joke, but it will test the patience of crusty Americans who like to get to the bottom of things. You might even dismiss the play as cryptic, until its images crop up a day or two later in your dreams. If Genet is looking at black hatred and how it fuels revolution, in her Melancholy Play, contemporary American playwright Sarah Ruhl studies the opposite emotion: sadness — as static as hatred is active. Where Genet’s hatred is a call to action and to arms, to turn the wheels of circumstance and history upside down, Ruhl’s melancholy is a funnel of complacency, reflective and world-weary by nature. Like Genet, Ruhl is also joking, sort of, poking fun at how melancholy becomes a sanctuary for delusions of wisdom and deep emotions, when it’s really just an unexplainably crappy mood that attracts bad poetry and cello music and lugubrious folk songs and ennui passing for wisdom — even intimacy, if you’re among like-minded depressives. Ruhl is a darling in America’s regional theaters right now, largely because of her capacity to pole-vault to heights of whimsy, theatrically speaking, on a single idea. Her The Clean House, about a sterile culture (seen through the travails, compulsiveness and power dynamics of hiring help to clean house) played at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory earlier this year, after winning the Blackburn Prize and being nominated for a Pulitzer. Melancholy Play is a minuet more than a drama, a Henry James–ish comedy set in Illinois, though it could just as well be Boston, for the way costumer Elizabeth Palmer has everyone dressed to the nines, and the way set designer Miguel Montalvo has bedecked the high walls of a chandeliered room in the Hayworth Building with drapes. Ruhl substitutes the unveiling of relationships for dramatic action — a key component of the difference between plays written by men and women. Everyone loves Tilly (Polly Noonan) for her melancholy seductiveness — her tailor Frank (Rob Helms), her dashing shrink Lorenzo (Karl Wiedergott), her haircutter Frances (Kristina Lear) and Frances’ English lover, nurse Joan (Marilyn Dodds Frank). One day, Tilly wakes up happy — a catastrophe for her admirers. This is one stylish production, directed by Chris Fields and accompanied on cello by Joseph Mendoes (the original music is by Michael Roth). “Play something happy,” one of them asks him. “That’s not easy on a cello,” he shoots back. The uniformly beguiling cast knows it’s in a fairy tale and plays the notes perfectly, until one character transforms into an inanimate object. Here the play turns precious, and Fields overcompensates by having his actors indulge in self-conscious self-mockery, poking us in the ribs. The ensuing silliness is like honey on jam.THE BLACKS: A Clown Show | By JEAN GENET | At EVIDENCE ROOM, 2220 Bevery Blvd., Los Angeles | Through June 26 | (213) 381-7118 MELANCHOLY PLAY | By SARAH RUHL | Presented by ECHO THEATER COMPANY at THE HAYWORTH, 643 Carondelet St., Los Angeles | Through June 19 | (800) 413-8669 or www.echotheatercompany.com


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