Circus-like production of `Balcony' dilutes Genet's ironies

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The Balcony Play by Jean Genet. Directed by JoAnne Akalaitis. The American Repertory Theatre here is offering a work seldom done in the United States -- though it is highly influential in world theater: Jean Genet's 1957 play ``The Balcony.''

It embodies Artaud's doctrine that theater ``must reflect back to us what it is that motivates our daily acts of love, crime, war, and folly,'' and expose the ``myths that underlie'' these acts.

Genet brutally caricatures these myths -- which he depicts as enslaving human notions -- to make audiences turn elsewhere, to some more promising ground, for their ideals. A bordello serves as the metaphorical setting for a deliberately offensive interplay of reality and illusion. Customers take on the roles of important figures in society -- a bishop, a judge, a general -- and later actually become big shots when revolutionaries take over, only to have the situation reversed again.

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Director JoAnne Akalaitis's concept is a semi-slapstick one, with clown-like figures in garishly symbolic costumes. Fully realized, it might have been strikingly effective in capturing Genet's mocking study of self-deluded players in a what-is-reality game of revolutionary politics and age-old institutions.

But this is a notoriously intractable work to put on stage, and the results here -- while colorful and energetic -- are only sporadically successful, even with the jaunty naturalism of Jean-Claude van Itallie's new translation from the French. Genet's own instructions call for solemnity and nobility in the setting -- a mocking background for people whom he says should appear as vulgar as possible. This production's flavor is circus-like rather than solemn, making it hard to pick out Genet's individual ironies from the comic framework. If the show were a TV screen, you might find yourself reaching for the contrast dial -- to help distinguish the specific points within the general background of ritual and illusion. And the Latin American setting -- unmentioned by Genet -- adds only marginal relevance, though it allows for some potent Latin music by Rub'en Blades.

Among the cast, Joan MacIntosh is a standout, and her main first-act scene lends the production a sorely needed clarity and force. But not until the second act does the company manage to bring home the director's insights with any consistency, thanks in large part to MacIntosh again. When she becomes queen, it's a vivid, audience-involving spectacle. You believe the illusions she represents are having their effect on the revolutionaries, because the scene is having its effect on the audience. And in Act III also, the action has a clarity and impact often missing in the rest of the production.

``The Balcony,'' currently on hiatus, will continue at the American Repertory Theatre May 30 through June 17.

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