New York

Prisoner of Love

New York Theater Workshop

On a steeply raked, lime green stage, downtown doyenne Ruth Maleczech, who plays Jean Genet in the theatrical adaptation of his posthumously published Prisoner of Love, 1986, capers beneath a crystal chandelier and a plastic tarpaulin, at the very edge of the stage. This behavior literalizes Genet’s assertion that “a border is where human personality expresses itself most fully.” Appropriate, too, is the haze-filled theater space, blurring lines of sight, conjuring the “faint intoxication” of his last book’s maelstrom of lust and power. Director JoAnne Akalaitis and composer Philip Glass—with coadaptors Maleczech and Chiori Miyagawa—tease out the ambiguities at the heart of a quasi-autobiographical novel by a man who called himself a “natural sham.” For one thing, the outlaw/saint Genet is played by a woman, a strategy intended to frustrate any direct correspondence between the appearance of an object or character and its meaning. In this way, Maleczech and company steer the audience along the many borders—both real and metaphorical—that Genet negotiates in his singular work.

Five miraculous plays notwithstanding, Prisoner of Love may represent Genet’s most performative writing. Too easily described as a memoir of his days with the PLO interspersed with musings about the Black Panthers, Genet’s work is really textual alchemy: part philosophical tract, part sexual manifesto, part oneiric allegory. Political gestures actually serve as raw material for Genet’s transgressive views on, among other things, representation (he writes that the Black Panther movement struck a chord because it “seemed to lack depth”) and identity. As Genet’s present absence, Maleczech reminds the audience that “the author, too, like those he speaks to, is dead.” Culled from memory, Prisoner of Love clearly thematizes the death of the author.

As does this adaptation, although the homage seems, at times, too reverent. Akalaitis has kept the visual elements uncluttered, allowing the words to jump into the foreground. Glass’ music, mostly fluttering in half-tone intervals, seems the perfect aural accompaniment to a performance about “border-ness”; saxophonist Melvin Butler volleys notes to match Genet’s text. In fact, Butler is the only other embodied presence on stage, and there is an interesting tension between him as a black man and Maleczech-as-Genet. In an amusing sequence, Maleczech teaches Butler about the Black Panthers’ history, stuffing 8-by-10-inch glossies (including one of Leonard Bernstein) into his reluctant arms. Butler throws them to the ground, dismissing them as mere radical chic.

Two moments in this performance are particularly memorable. Maleczech lies in the dead author’s tomb and begins drumming cheerful rhythms along the coffin’s planks to punctuate Genet’s text (soon echoed by Butler’s finger-drumming on the saxophone keys). Akalaitis has outfitted Genet’s grave with a three-way mirror, suggesting vanity in the face of decay as well as the author’s delight in theatrical illusionism. (Mirrors also play a part in a parable about class and power—the longest uninterrupted narrative in Prisoner of Love.) However, Akalaitis’ staging of the object is at once too literal and somewhat heavy-handed, as it also references Genet’s use of mirrors in The Maids and The Balcony. A better image is the closing tableau: a small shrine comprising a Coke bottle, a glass, and a tin of mutton stands beside a blood-drenched glove. Maleczech has poured the blood (symbolizing the Palestinians’ struggle) on the green stage from a teapot, unearthed from one of many trapdoors in the set. We are reminded that—like blood on an empty stage—these struggling political bodies are the “black characters in which history is written. They are the ink that gives the white page its meaning.”

Steven Drukman