What is real, what is theater, what is power?

by Katherine Agard

People have sex in brothels.

Now this is a really obvious point and one that might not have implications beyond the economics and politics of prostitution. But stay with me.

In a play set in a brothel, one would expect that the men who frequent the place for its services receive the service of…sex.

The action of The Balcony, Jean Genet's play running through Saturday, Nov. 20 at the Loeb Mainstage, takes place in a brothel called "the House of Illusions," whose madam Irma facilitates the performances of her clients. One client, for example, performs as "the Judge" who wishes to punish and then forgive a thief. Madam Irma facilitates this; providing a thief and a chamber for the trial and a whip. The Judge is acting the part of the archetypal judge.

"The Balcony" raises questions of the nature of reality and of illusion. It is layered with philosophical questions, and Genet's meditations spring freely from the mouths of characters in the original text.

Now remember: The Judge is in a brothel.

Director Matt Stone '11 notes, "Never once does Genet say that the men are in the brothel for sex. We decided ultimately that yes - that is what they're there. We never realized how much of a gray area there was until we got into the rehearsal process."

Of the first production of the Balcony in 1957, Genet writes: "…I saw for myself that 'The Balcony' was badly acted." And indeed, it would be very easy to enact "The Balcony" badly. It would be easy to be caught in Genet’s words and Genet’s themes and Genet’s structure -- and overlook the important of performance.

"I wanted something that was difficult, a challenging work to put up, difficult in terms of the material and form. That’s what’s interesting in the rehearsal process – figuring out the problems of the play. The themes and the ideas that I’m drawn to – examining power, sexuality and how theater works."

The decision to represent the sexual life of the brothel instead of skirting around the issue in favor of the deeper themes of the play is monumental.

The very physical action – seeing the women in leather, seeing them move close to the men, seeing the bed being made – reminds the audience of the presence of the characters. It reminds me of their personal motivations. As Stone notes, "We decided that the men go there because of some sort of insecurity or self-loathing and some terrible reasoning for themselves. Different nuances of their characters are on display from moment to moment."

This weekend is the last weekend of the Balcony. It shows in the Loeb Mainstage Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8.00 pm.

[Caption: THE BALCONY: Nasir Husain '12, Ilinca Radulian '11, Bryan Kauder '14. Photo by Gokcan Demirkazik]