Transparently absurd 

UM’s Screens a little too see-through

Obvious instruction from a theatrical production is unforgivable, not to mention counterproductive. Audiences do not like to be pushed around. At first, it seems that director Randy Bolton has it in mind to capitalize on this discomfort. After taking a program for Jean Genet’s The Screens, the ticket-holder is ushered through unfamiliar corridors of the Masquer Theatre by armed, uniformed guards holding weapons. It’s a nice touch, a little disorientation for a complacent viewer, a touch of oppression to work itself under the skin. But from the moment the play begins, the production loses its authority and behaves like a bullying teacher who has given up on effective methods in favor of an ordered classroom. The production, which began its two-week run Tuesday, bosses, threatens, yells and instructs, but it does not engage and, on the eve of opening night, it had trouble earning much respect.

Oppression is the central theme of The Screens, Genet’s acidic examination of the French occupation of Algiers, set in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Bolton depends on surrealism and exaggeration for his atmosphere, but, as with an increasing number of University productions, his cast seems clumsy with the tools and the audience oblivious to the effect. The actors have virtually no connection with the words that emerge from their mouths (in a florid and awkward translation) and seem overworked and strained when it comes to all the shouting and laughing they force themselves to do, as if to say, “Here’s one emotion, now here’s another!” I hesitate to speculate on the actors’ understanding of the historical or literary elements of playwright and play.

Scenic designer Theresa K. Jenson makes good use of a new configuration of the space, pulling her design out across the black room in one long line punctuated by platforms and stairs. Screens move to and fro as the scene calls for them, each one a small painted image of a desert landscape or a crude tree or a shanty interior. Finally, the screens lose concrete meaning. The last one is stretched taut with a white fabric through which dead characters, having shed their daily wear, emerge on their way up to join the other dead. More than 30 actors play more than 60 roles, and Meaghan C. Wills’ costumes, with their crude hems and earthy dyes, capture the tone between dignity and poverty, strike the chord between domesticity and sex. The women’s costumes blend oppression’s tattered, heavy head coverings with femininity’s gauzy yashmaks in rich hues.

The oppression of women emerges as this production’s strongest element, in design and in emphasis, and Bolton’s comments on it make for the better moments of the play. In one scene, while two French colonists guffaw about the wealth the land affords them in the export of roses, oranges and cork, a band of men sneaks up on an orange grove behind them and steals everything off their prized trees before plundering the bark and branches. The trees are played by women who stand motionless and bent with an orange in each hand. The women are all loud and bawdy. As the second act opens, one woman, now dead, commands the revolution, shouting, “Women’s insults are our Marseillaise!” Indeed they have been, women graphic and vulgar at every opportunity, brilliant with imagery and effect.

The production, unfortunately, suffers from a pushy arrogance that refuses to take into account the experience of its audience. At the last dress rehearsal, the audience, comprised almost entirely of theater students forced to attend, quickly lost interest, and the dark seats lit up perpetually with the blue glow of checked cell phones and iridescent watches. As rude as this was—and perhaps those brutish gendarmes might consider confiscating phones during the show—it reflected a total failure on the part of the play to excite the audience’s interest or attention. In one of the last speeches, three hours after the play began, as a dead soldier reflected on his humanity while discussing an act of shitting, the audience was giggling and shuffling. Pity the poor, underprepared actor playing a French sergeant who had to shout in front of this crowd, “You’re the mighty prick of France who dreams he’s fucking!”

Had the play succeeded in its lessons, offered stealth instruction in a world and its atmosphere, fine-tuned its actors to feel and convey their meanings, such a house reaction would have been unthinkable, even among an unwilling audience. The speech was beautiful and alarming but miserably lost in its world. Instead of incendiary political comment, which the director informs us in the program that he’s going for, The Screens is depressing as a theatrical event. It was depressing to consider the brave, tortured, powerful Genet spread thin in this soupy muddle.

The Screens runs April 29–May 1 and May 4–8 in UM Masquer Theatre. Performances start at 7:30, and tickets cost $6.

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