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Reviewed by:
  • The Balcony by Jean Genet
  • Kimberly Jannarone
The Balcony. By Jean Genet. Directed by Michael Hunter and Jamie Lyons. Collected Works, Old Mint Building, San Francisco. 7 February 2015.

The Old Mint building in San Francisco is, in the words of directors Michael Hunter and Jamie Lyons, a “dead building.” Erected in 1874 to print extra money during the Gold Rush, it was decommissioned as a mint in 1937, allegedly transformed into a CIA spy hub during the Cold War, and then fell into disuse. It is a hulking, neglected monument to the city’s fluctuating fortunes: “Google buses” drive past during the day, homeless people sleep on its steps at night, and everyone sees the facade though almost no one goes inside.

The building thus provides an ideal site for a drama about the hidden mechanics of power and the role of fantasy in constructing history. Collected Works, a San Francisco–based production company, tapped this potential by staging Jean Genet’s The Balcony in the vaults, corridors, public chambers, and private meeting rooms of this sandstone-and-granite building decaying in the midst of a city undergoing another epochal shift in power.

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Nathalie Brilliant (Beggar’s Girl) and Florentina Mocanu-Schendel (Beggar) in The Balcony. (Photo: Jamie Lyons.)

When spectators entered the imposing edifice we were invited to explore exhibitions in several ground-floor antechambers. Installations by textile artist Latifa Medjdoub (who also designed the costumes) established an atmosphere of erotic and menacing [End Page 729] trompe l’oeil. Her hybrid fabric constructions combined sculpture, costume, and conceptual art: images of iconic figures of power overlaid complex woven garments, materializing Genet’s metatheatrical threads of role-playing and the entanglements of authority. Madame Irma (Val Sinckler), the brothel-keeper, and her principal employee, Carmen (Ryan Tacata), addressed us as valued clients before ushering us down to the basement level. Here, the first scenes unfolded simultaneously in dimly lit granite rooms in which actors played actors playing roles of institutional power and sensual fantasy.

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Lauren Dunagan (Judge) and Amy Munz (Thief) in The Balcony. (Photo: Jamie Lyons.)

The choice to set us loose in the shadowy underground of a politically charged public building paid dividends with this play in two ways. For one, as it was impossible to see each of the simultaneous scenes from beginning to end, the staging forced spectators to make viewing decisions, and creeping in and out of intimate scenes of sexualized role-playing heightened our sense of voyeurism. For another, these brothel scenes in cramped, unfamiliar spaces had a concrete reality impossible to experience on a proscenium stage—we leaned against cold stone walls, overheard yelling from nearby rooms, and walked among performers whose faces were often obliterated by masks and fabric.

The second half unfolded upstairs in spacious public halls and foyers. Madame Irma, Carmen, and the Police Chief (played by Scott Baker) dominated, plotting their transfer of power from the interior illusionistic world to the real politics of the government under siege outside their walls. When the fantasy-world employees and clients finally assumed their new roles they held court on a literal balcony while paparazzi ran among the spectators and snapped photos from below. The goal of integrating the site with the play was particularly successful here, as most audience members had never been inside before and had only imagined the building as a site of representations of political influence. Now we were watching representations of such representations within its columned halls.

Lyons—who also works with San Francisco’s We Players, a production company committed to “site-integrated” performances that take place in public parks (for example, Ondine at Sutro Baths; Macbeth at Fort Point; Hamlet on Alcatraz)—advocates for performance that uses the site as another creative participant in the work: it should be character and designer, and it should shape the development and understanding of the piece. One scene in this Balcony illustrated the payoff of letting the space inform the text: the revolutionaries met in a cafeteria-style hall where lights and sirens from downtown filtered through the barred windows, the...


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