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The American premiere of Jean Genet's one-act play Deathwatch brings together the four figures who probably constitute Harvard's top theatrical talent: director Stephen Aaron and actors Colgate Salsbury, Harold Scott,, and D.J. Sullivan. This fact alone would promise to make the production a memorable one, but the measure of its success exceeds all expectations. Deathwatch is superb.
The effectiveness of the production is all the more astounding because Genet's play poses some unique problems both for the actors and the audience. On first glance, it looks like a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces mixed. Incident follows incident, but their relationship to each other seems indiscernible and nothing which might be called a story forms. Yet in time, and with the prodding of Aaron's perceptive direction, a pattern does emerge.
This pattern takes the shape of one of the most basic of all plot schemes--the triangle. Its members are three French prison inmates: one, Green Eyes, a condemned murderer; the second, Maurice, a young boy who is, apparently, a born criminal; and the third, Lefranc, a man who has only skirted the edges of the criminal world. Green Eyes dominates the triangle by virtue of the power which his crime confers on him. Each of the others tries to gain something of that power for himself by excluding the other from the murderer's regard.
Genet, who incidentally is not a professional writer but a criminal with a long prison record, can be seen as a profoundly moralistic thinker. His system, however, is an almost complete reversal of what is usually considered as morality. For him, the absolute goal of human existence is not the attainment of good, but of evil. This state cannot be reached by mere effort--it must, like Calvinistic grace, be conferred from without. Thus he represents Green Eyes' crime as not rationally motivated.
Translating Genet's complex ideas, patterns, and symbols into a coherent performance appears an almost overwhelming task, but Aaron has managed it. His skill in shaping the play by guiding the actors to proper emphasis at the proper moment is that of a master. Masterly, too, is his ingenuity in placing the cast in an almost endless sequence of exciting visual patterns within the limits of John Ratte's fine set.
It would be difficult to decide who among the actors themselves deserves the greatest praise--they are all good. Certainly the work of Colgate Salsbury, who plays Green Eyes, is better than it has ever been before. His every gesture, even the way he stands, proclaim the agony of the illiterate murderer's efforts to express himself. In his hands, Green Eyes lives as the "crumbling monument" which Genet intended him to be.
The role of Maurice seems as if it had been written with Harold Scott's performance in mind. It requires a series of small, bright, subtle responses, and Scott has these at his fingertips. He displays an extraordinary sense of rhythm and timing, but never just as a show of technical virtuosity. The depth of this performance is enough to fill many a professional with envy.
D.J. Sullivan also emerges as an actor of professional capabilities. On paper, the part of Lefranc is the most vaguely defined of the three, but Sullivan succeeds in drawing a sharply-edged portrait of a tragic character. His performance is suffused with pity for the man--but just the right amount. The performance clearly is the product of much thought and insight. And the only other member of the cast, Robert Hesse, shows in his brief appearance as a guard that his work is promising.
On the whole, the production of Deathwatch constitutes something of a crowning achievement for the theater at Harvard. This is excellence.
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