At the Image Theatre, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, at 8:30 and 10:30 for the next two weeks.
The small boxing club has been disappearing in America and the theater is no substitute for it. This became particularly obvious Saturday night at a cramped Boston coffee house that has risen (or vice versa) from a folk-song joint to the Image Theatre.
Their production of Genet's Deathwatch is no main event. The prison in which the play is set is suggested so stingily by a few black and white stripes that it looks like a mutated peppermint stick. A fishing net hangs inexplicably above the stage, and the lighting is dim and obscure. Someone apparently forgot that people pay their money to see something, and deserve more than arty darkness.
Jean Genet has been in prison, and his insights into the smothered aspirations and inarticulate regrets of jailed men are occasionally penetrating and even beautiful. But Louis Lopez-Cepere as the effeminate kid, Maurice, and George Quenzel as the poseur, LeFranc, shout and gesticulate until you can no longer hear M. Genet. Maurice is turned into such a hyperbolized fairy that his pathetic love and desperation become the cheapest banality. His real groping for affection is represented by nine or ten unctuous lunges at his cellmates. As for Quenzel, someone must have told him that the more important a line is, the louder it must be spoken. He takes his part so seriously, it seems, that the lines he considers very important are screamed above the upper limit of human audibility.
It can be said, in defense of director Jaul John Austin, that putting on Genet is difficult. Quintero has not done so well by him in New York, with The Balcony, and similarly, the financial and social success of The Blacks overshadows the weaknesses of its theatricality.
Genet's characters are intellectualizations. In Deathwatch, Green Eyes is the intellectual abstraction of a murderer, LeFranc of a petty crook, and Maurice of a thieving, confused little homosexual. And intellectualizations are not easily translated into flesh and blood. Their conflicts are worked out on a conversational plane, while the real struggles that men take part in cannot be totally represented by debate.
Even more important, there are few events as such in Genet's work, and even less power. What he offers are reports of events and images of power: a phallus in The Balcony, a racial throne in The Blacks, and a well-publicized murder in Deathwatch. Thus there are no powerful characters: only those who pretend successfully (the strong) and those who fail in their deceptions (the weak).
While his writing is filled with anger and criticism, Genet has become a popular rather than a forceful play-wright. The productions are partly to blame, as are Genet's metaphysics. His racial commentary in The Blacks has been used to titillate rather than challenge. The result is intellectual exploitation of a currently catchy theme. It becomes off-beat, not serious, hip, not important. Irony wins, not Genet: in a community that virtually exiles its militant Negro leader, Robert Williams, and castigates A. Phillip Randolph, The Blacks remains the most successful off-Broadway show.
Deathwatch, a play written more from experience and less from speculation than Genet's two New York hits, would ring true if the actors didn't consistently obstruct the lines. Sadly though, Peter MacLean as Green Eyes is the only lead with feeling or understanding in his voice; and even he seems tempted to substitute crescendo for these qualities.
Not only is the stage no substitute for a well-proportioned prize-fight ring, but it is frightening to think that Cappucino and Camembert cheese may replace beer and hot dogs. At 8:35 a girl pointed to the folder on my table and asked, "Could I look at this?" I passed her the playbill, she studied it in confusion for a while, and finally returned it, saying, "Sorry, I thought it was the menu."
It could never have happened at a fight. And there, even if you disagree with the decision, anyone can understand the plot and know who wins.