Throw together a little bit of politics, a touch of war and whole lot of sex, and what do you get? Controversy. The Trueblood Theatre is bracing itself for just that this coming weekend as the Department of Theatre and Drama premieres its latest main stage show, “The Balcony,” a bizarre portrait of power and intimacy by French playwright Jean Genet.
First staged at a private club in London in 1956because it was considered too scandalous for Paris audiences. “The Balcony” is set in the Grand Balcony, a brothel in a contemporary European city aflame with revolution. The Grand Balcony is a place of illusions where men come to indulge in their secret fantasies.
Inside, prostitutes assist patrons in play- acting a variety of roles: a judge inflicting punishment on a beautiful thief, a bishop dealing with a penitent sinner and a general meditating on his relationship with his horse (played by a bridled prostitute).
Fantasy and reality become clouded, however, when the rebels in the street overthrow the Royal Place and the audience is left to distinguish between what is real and what is not.
Ignoring traditional plot and psychology, the play relies heavily on ritual, transformation, illusion and interchangeable identities. Genet believed that virtually anyone could bear a name or a title and wrote all of his plays in order to expose and reveal how fraudulent liturgical, legal and royal titles can be.
Theatre department faculty member and director of “The Balcony,” Mbala Nkanga, believes that in a modern day setting, the show’s significance stretches to even wider boundaries. “I want the audience to come and see how Jean Genet was able to deal with the issues of illusion and fantasy mixed with mirrors. All of us live in a world of illusions,” he said.
This very shaky border between fantasy and reality made the script a difficult one to interpret for many of the actors involved. BFA senior Sandra Abrevaya, who plays Madame Irma in the play, said, “It’s confusing. We really had to sit down and pick apart the play. It was challenging but it was exciting.” Brian Luskey, a BFA junior and actor portraying the police chief, also found the difficulty and subtlety of the script to be a welcome obstacle. “The play is a big puzzle and we put the puzzle together,” he said.
Another unique aspect of “The Balcony” that made its production quite a feat for the cast and crew was the language barrier. “This is a play that was originally written in French. Most of the plays that are produced here are in English, so for the students and for me it was a very interesting and enriching experience,” said Nkanga.
The English translation has made this production possible, but all those involved wanted to ensure a faithful connection to the original script. “We had an assistant director always on the French script,” said Josh Lefkowitz, a junior BFA student and actor.
Nkanga believes that a student audience will benefit greatly from coming to see “The Balcony,” even though most will not have heard of it beforehand. “I want them to be interested in non-English theater. They have to realize that there are other plays not written in English that are very interesting to look at,” he said.
The average Ann Arbor resident may find it hard to believe that a racy political drama set in a European brothel could be remotely interesting or relatable.
But, a closer look at “The Balcony” will reveal much more universal themes and a subject matter that BFA sophomore JoAnna Spanos said, “actually hits very close to home.” Still, “The Balcony” is not a morality play. It’s “not about good versus evil or right vs. wrong,” said Nkanga. “It’s about human action and making choices.”
The hard working cast and crew of the show hope that the audience will leave the theater deep in conversation. For those looking for a bit of guidance to their dialogues, there will be post-performance discussions on March 29 and 31 and April 5.
The discussions will be led by Nkanga or by U-M French and Comparative Literature Prof. Frieda Ekotto, a renowned expert on Genet. After a play as daring and rich in thought as The Balcony,” those discussions are sure to be filled with raised hands and even more raised eyebrows. “It’s a thinking play. It’s a challenge for the audience and that can oftentimes be a very good thing,” said Luskey.