Chicago Art Theatre

at Cafe Voltaire

In the 1967 preface to his Ouevres completes IV, Jean Genet wrote of his first dramatic work, Deathwatch, “I would . . . like for this play never to be staged.” He was a smart cookie. Though the prose is accomplished and lyrical, Deathwatch rarely gets beyond petty bickering, thinly veiled homoeroticism, and puerile wish fulfillment. Genet may have been embarrassed by the play’s lack of sophisticated stagecraft, so evident in his other great works, or its fairly traditional dramatic form, but at any rate he claimed to have written it “probably out of boredom or by mistake.”

Set in a prison cell, Deathwatch focuses on neophyte thugs Maurice and Lefranc, who endlessly vie for the attention of their much admired and imitated cellmate, Green Eyes, a full-fledged murderer. Critics have prattled on about whether it’s Lefranc or Green Eyes who’s elevated to sainthood by committing murder or about the parallels between Deathwatch and Victor Turner’s theory of the liminal and the liminoid; but back here on Planet Earth, the play provides little for a cast or audience to sink their teeth into. Throughout, Maurice and Lefranc seem stuck in the same macho one-upmanship. The prison guard introduced late in the play is somewhat academic, enigmatically expounding upon the existential existence of a guard. And while Green Eyes’ many disturbing poetic monologues give Deathwatch its most provocative moments, Genet seems more interested in putting words in his hero’s mouth than in pushing the play in any particular direction.

So the question arises: Why did Chicago Art Theatre feel the need to produce this play? This staging lacks the kind of self-indulgent excess the script invites–there’s minimal yelling and screaming here–so we can rule out ego inflation as its raison d’etre (a factor that unfortunately can’t be ruled out in so much other Chicago storefront theater). In a program note, director Hunter Adams extols the virtues of a historical approach to what he calls a “theatre-person’s play,” saying that “it has a special appeal for the theatrical archivist, one interested in a celebrated writer’s development.” Of course one needn’t stage Deathwatch to study its relation to Genet’s other work; moreover, staging it alone suggests such relations only to those already versed in Genet’s particularly twisted genius.

Ultimately the question of the necessity of producing Deathwatch is not answered here. Adams’s program note mentions the play’s theme of the “needs for relationship, affection, and respect,” but such issues are presented in a curiously superficial, stagy way. Part of this emotional distance may be intentional–and is perfectly appropriate, because Genet continually stressed the importance of grave formality in his work. In fact Adams opens his piece with a kind of ritual procession: the main characters enter and light a candle before beginning the piece. But as the play wears on, these formal stylizations become mostly cosmetic–face paint, primarily–and what remains is a relatively naturalistic production without a solid emotional foundation. The result feels more like a graduate thesis than a passionate exploration of the darker reaches of the human psyche.

This production is further hampered by Adams’s curious habit of keeping his actors in nearly constant random motion, stopping only occasionally to deliver the more profound thoughts in Genet’s script (and unfortunately the lack of adequate lighting leaves many of these moments in the dark). While Adams admits the difficulty of “holding an audience’s attention” with this play, his loosely focused staging gives the piece a nearly uniform energy: it’s almost impossible to find a clear path through the evening.

Only Robert Alexander as Green Eyes displays a facility with the text, his dulcet baritone curving deliciously through Genet’s poetry. Of all the cast he seems most at home with Deathwatch, and his subtle manipulation of cadence provides the only element of surprise in an otherwise disappointingly academic evening.