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House of Illusions

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THE BALCONY

New Crime Productions

at At the Gallery

New Crime's production of Jean Genet's The Balcony layers illusion upon illusion upon illusion. Watching it is like walking through a fun house full of mirrors where sexual fantasies are acted out, where every situation can be believed yet nothing is real. The Balcony is not for the fainthearted. It's powerful theater, thought provoking and always a bit unsettling.

New Crime brings to Genet's play its own commedia dell'arte style: masks, whiteface, and classic commedia charcterization. Under the skillful direction of David Sinaiko, it's loud, fast, and occasionally funny.

The first few acts are disturbingly confusing. The curtain rises on an archbishop who's shaking as he screams holy epithets. He then stops, and Isabel the Penitent, dressed in a short blue crinoline, white bra, garter belt, and black stockings, emerges from under his robes, where she's been giving him a blow job. Screams and explosions periodically erupt offstage. Then a woman enters and tells the archbishop to change his clothes--it's time to go. The archbishop doesn't want to leave.

Next scene: the same woman (Polly Noonan) is wearing an American flag draped around her waist and a black motorcycle vest open to the navel. She stands before a judge (Paul Adelstein) who wears an equally absurd costume. Also in the room is a man (Peter Handler) who's carrying a whip and wearing tight black panties and fishnet stockings. They seem to be conducting a theft trial, but it deteriorates into a lascivious encounter between the judge and the thief.

Little by little the underlying facts become clear. A woman named Irma (superbly played by Adele Robbins) runs a brothel in the middle of a war-torn city. Revolutionaries have destroyed virtually every preexisting institution except the whorehouse. Madame Irma's "honorable house of illusions," as she prefers to call it, remains a haven where clients can discreetly assume the identity of whomever they wish and act out their sexual fantasies. Favorite identities? The archbishop, the judge, and the general--figureheads of age-old institutions now toppled.

Genet, who worked as a prostitute and began writing while serving time for robbery, seems obsessed with power. In The Balcony he slyly dissects the traditional power of church and state, and then distills it to one simple idea: "The only thing that matters is what you read and the image you see."

That notion fuels the action of act two, when the masters of illusion--Irma, Police Chief George Thrillman (Bill Cusack), and the Queen's Envoy (Paul Adelstein)--manipulate the masses to restore order. To obtain power, suggests Genet, all one needs to do is present the image of power. That notion leads to all sorts of questions about the media and the image makers and spin doctors who feed them information.

The New Crime designers, musicians, and actors seem to have expended every last ounce of their creative energy on this production. Allison Reeds's costumes are shockingly effective, well complemented by Cusack and Bridget Camden's masks. The music, directed by percussionist Tom Jasek, creates a raw, unnerving atmosphere, almost becoming a character itself.

Yet this admirable production is not without its flaws. Opening night felt like a pair of stiff new shoes. The New Crime members seem to sense they have a good show, and they're right. But the cast seemed overly excited and a bit uncomfortable in their roles. Despite many strong performances, the timing could have been better and some scenes could have been more sharply defined, especially when double-cast actors threatened to obscure key moments in the final act.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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