The Balcony


A sign on the door outside the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s production of The Balcony warned that the performance would feature loud noises and flashes of light. It didn’t mention “abstraction,” for which the audience also needed to prepare. Nonetheless, I appreciated the chance to see an excellent production of an interesting show.

I showed up to the performance unprepared, having been preoccupied in the days prior with civil procedure and the D.C. peace march. Knowing that The Balcony is a work by Jean Genet, I did piece together enough dim college recollections to expect something racy, complicated and French. Thus I brought along an anthropology grad student friend for help with any complicated conceptual stuff that might come up. As the lights went down, I hoped she would not be bored.

That proved not to be a problem.

Within the first 30 seconds of the show, ear-splitting sounds of warfare gave way to the sight of a prostitute (Emily Galvin) servicing a robed bishop (Greg Gagnon). As the madam negotiated with this and other clients and with her protégé/pimp (Uche Amaechi), the small audience gradually stopped giggling and began puzzling over such dialogue as “the devil himself is the most famous of bad actors.”

My friend leaned over after the second scene, and I hoped to hear a cogent explanation of the play’s message trip off her lips. Instead she said, “This is way out there.” I couldn’t argue. Eventually we stopped worrying about literal meanings and settled in for an evening of engaging (if sometimes bizarre to the point of absurdity) theater.

The title location in this play is the business headquarters of a brothel, managed by Madam Irma (Emily Knapp). While she matches up her employees (Sara Lindsay Bartel, Kathleen Stetson) with such clients as the Bishop, the Judge (Bill McAdams) and the General (Nicholas Ma), “the rebels” are said to be encroaching on the city. Each of the powerful men enjoys being dominated while questioning what his role will be in a post-revolution society. Meanwhile, one prostitute (Scottie Thompson) has run off with her main client (Dan Cozzens) while another important customer (Matt Boch, well cast as the Police Chief) is late for a balcony appointment, adding suspense to a charged situation

By the second act, political power has changed hands, giving way to new debates over who controls whom and what each individual hopes to achieve in society. The Queen’s Envoy (Peter Dodd) commands attention with particularly ridiculous lines in the midst of chaos: “A Royal Palace is never finished exploding!” There are revelations, confrontations, a castration. (Explaining any more of the plot or thematic content of this show would not only ruin the surprise of several dramatic turns, but also risk revealing my own confusion about what exactly was going on.)

Director Andrew Boch wrought focused performances from a large cast. The acting particularly impressed me with its roles so far removed from the presumed actual life of Harvard College undergrads — although sexuality, violence, domination and submission are of course, in their varying forms, universal. Emily Knapp had an especially large responsibility as Madam Irma, whom she played with great presence, although I think her demeanor changed too little as Irma rose and fell from power over the course of the show.

The producers (Helen Estabrook, Catharina Lavers, and Jeremy Reff) and technical director (Todd Weekley) also deserve credit for an all-around well-executed play. Yard-high pyramids and other impressive abstract sculptures (by Julian Rose) dominated the floor level of the set (designed by Harry Graff Kimball), while the carefully-appointed balcony loomed on scaffolding overhead. Highly appropriate costumes (designed by Meredith James and Melia Marden) featured a touch of ’80s punk, while the drum-and-bass music booming during scene changes enhanced the sensation that this was a very modern production, even though the play was written in 1955.

A bit of history: Jean Genet drew much of his inspiration from personal experiences as a thief, a prostitute and a soldier in the French-Algerian war. A band of his intellectual friends, including Jean-Paul Sartre, had bailed him out of jail a few years before The Balcony was published. The show indirectly invokes images of the Algerian war, the Spanish Civil War and other modern conflicts, as well as prison and a medieval court.

The Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, like so many other entities at the College, takes itself very seriously, but with good reason. The Loeb Drama Center, where this and all other HRDC “Mainstage” productions take place, is a large and well-appointed facility. The success of this show, with its challenging content and large cast and crew, bodes well for the remainder of the HRDC season.

For those interested in pushing dramatic boundaries even further than this abstract modern classic, the HRDC features innovative works on its “Experimental” stage. The next Mainstage show, meanwhile, will be much more traditional: Look for a production of Cabaret coming up next month.

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