The Revolution Will Be Staged: John Kuntz on ’The Balcony’

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday November 17, 2011

"The Balcony" is a sharp, satirical jab of a play by Jean Genet in which a group of high-end bordello patrons become swept up in a revolution. The strangeness of their day leads to a piquant inversion: The bordello clients have dressed up as a bishop, a general, and a judge for some kinky fun, but as society collapses around them, they find themselves assuming the roles of those various social pillars by virtue of being in the right costumes at the right (or wrong) time.

Genet was, of course, a celebrated queer writer, and his sensibility here arguably runs less toward the cautionary than to the delirious. The undercurrent is serious enough, but there's a celebration of the absurd that's both delicious and terrifying. Stylistically, the play couldn't be a better match for director John Kuntz, whose style has a unique, wildly energetic flair.

"The Balcony" has attracted the attention of some of the great theater directors since its London premiere in 1957. Kuntz doesn't shy from the task, and doesn't spend his time on homage: What you see on his stage is a merging of his own semi-hallucinatory vision with that of Genet, a literary outlaw if ever there was one.

Kuntz himself is a writer with a talent for the strange and layered. His play "The Hotel Nepenthe" marked the first time The Actors' Shakespeare Project produced a new play. "The Hotel Nepenthe" is a labyrinthine work that draws on subterranean currents in the human psyche as much as on rarefied physics theory, asking questions about who we are, who we might be, and how all of life's possibilities overlap and intertwine. If Genet's "The Balcony" is a fever dream in which reality and illusion bleed freely into one another, Kuntz's "Hotel Nepenthe" is a sort of multi-universe-spanning abacus that tots up and weighs the probabilities of any possible course of events.

Kuntz has appeared not only with ASP, but also with the American Repertory Theatre, not to mention having written several one-man shows including "The Salt Girl" and "Starfuckers." He also teaches at the Boston Conservatory, and his production of "The Balcony" is undertaken with the students there--an object lesson, so to speak, in the challenges (and the limitless options) contained within any given performance space.

John Kuntz spoke with EDGE recently about "The Balcony" and its relevance to this very instant in our national history.

"I've always liked Jean Genet," Kuntz commenced. "What an interesting, provocative character he was. He was probably one of the strangest people that ever lived. He was a thief and an iconoclast and prostitute, and spent most of his life in prison. He really was queer before anyone was really queer [in the modern sense of the word].

"I first read "The Balcony" in college, I think, and I always thought it was incredibly theatrical and dreamlike and hallucinatory and very sexy," Kuntz continued. "If I was going to direct a play, it would be a play like that, so I approached Neil Donohoe, who heads the theatre department at The Boston Conservatory, and talked to him about it, never expecting that he would actually say "yes"--and he did! I was thrilled.

"I think it's different from the plays we normally do at the Conservatory," added the playwright and director. "It's a great opportunity for the students to be in an important absurdist play like this, which is not done very often. I think the last major production in Boston was at the ART, when Joanne Akaliatis did it... I want to say that was in 1989 or so. I've never actually seen it myself. I don't think it's done much because it's a huge play, there's a huge cast, and there are a lot of design demands and elaborate costume elements. It's notoriously difficult. So it's very exciting that it's being produced, I think. It's a really rare chance to see it.

"The structure is very unusual as well," Kuntz added. "There are these great four scenes that are very sexy and provocative and meta-theatrical, and then it shifts entirely into this story about Revolution and you suddenly start following this revolutionary plot...

"The other tricky thing about 'The Balcony' is that it's not realistic at all," Kuntz said, clearly relishing this aspect of Genet's work. "It's absurd, and it's heightened, and the language is very embellished. It's a challenging play, but we're having a blast just discovering this strange world that Genet has made. It's fun, too, putting your own stamp on the play as a director. It's very gratifying. I've set it in our time, but a little in the future, so all the media has been updated. There are cameras filming the stage and the audience. The set looks like a blasted sound stage where this sort of crazy fashion show of sex and politics takes place."

Sex and politics? Revolution? If this play hadn't been written over 50 years ago by a Frenchman, it would be tempting to see it as the work of a daring American writer responding to the headlines of today.

"I have a feeling that this play will start to be produced a lot more because it feels very timely, even though it was written in 1957," Kuntz told EDGE. "It's all about Revolution and hypocrisy and corruption and what is real and what is fake.

"Right now we are in a country where a small number of people control all the wealth and power, and where anyone may be exploited. Those are themes Genet is exploring in the play... Genet points out that all anyone has to do in order to assume roles of power in society is to pull on the costumes that go with the roles.

"But now we have all this technology, so we're taking a look at what a revolution might look like if it happened today, or it it's even possible, with all our iPhones and reality TV and stuff like that," Kuntz added. "We're just so numbed by all this [media input]."

In other words, is revolution even possible any longer? Have we become such slaves to a mass media culture based on ads, soundbites, and bombast that we no longer have the muscle to resist overpowering forces of social control? If the revolution will not be televised, will it at least find its way to Twitter? Or is any attempt at sweeping social change destined to lead right back to where things were before--are human beings hardwired to keep dancing the same dance of oppression and submission, with periodic upheavals?

"Yeah, I think that was what he was saying; it's not clear," Kuntz reflected. "In the end, the Revolutionaries in 'The Balcony' didn't necessarily want to destroy the social order, they wanted to become the leaders of the social order. When the revolution is quelled, the failed leader of the Revolution ends up in the brothel dressed as the Chief of Police to act out a fantasy of cruelty, he just wanted to be the Chief of Police the whole time. And then he punishes himself for that guilty desire, and also the Chief of Police indirectly, by mutilating himself while wearing his costume.

"In this sort of flawed democracy we live in right now, can any meaningful change be made?" Kuntz continued. "I'm not really sure. I think the play forces the audience to think about all these things."

Kuntz noted that some interpretations of the play assign to it commentary on Franco's Spain; others hold to the view that Genet is commenting on the French Revolution. The latter case, Kuntz suggested, might be more relevant to our own times.

"I read recently that the situation in the U.S. right now--with a privileged few holding all the wealth and power--is the same situation in France just before the French Revolution," the playwright told EDGE. "Exactly the same. And I thought that was interesting--and rather scary."

Another take is that the play, which is constructed as a meta-theatrical piece, might be a play within a play. "Genet could be saying, 'This world is fake. But your world is also just as fake as the world you just saw,' " Kuntz noted. "So maybe it is revolutionary, but maybe it's counter revolutionary.

"Before the play even starts, there's going to be kind of a fashion show going on, with the play's whores walking up and down a catwalk," Kuntz added. "And there will be fascist guards walking around. The experience will be that you're attending some sort of fascist theatre event, so you're not really sure where the play ends and where the play begins again. I like the idea that the whole thing is just some sort of propaganda piece, but that you never know which side the play might be propagandizing for."

"The Balcony" is a complex and challenging work, but Kuntz had no doubt that his students were up to the task of mounting on a fully realized production.

"You know, I never thought 'The Balcony' would ever be too much for the BoCo students," Kuntz said. "They live, eat and breathe theatre, 24 hours a day. It's all they think about.

"They are incredibly savvy and smart, and this is what they really want to do: Make a life for themselves in the theatre," the instructor continued. "I couldn't think of a more perfect challenge for them than to tackle this unruly play. They have been incredible, and it's really been an incredible experience working with them."

Noting Kuntz's prolific output as a writer, EDGE asked whether he also had a new play of his own up his sleeve for Boston audiences this season.

"Yes, actually," the playwright responded. "I teach a class at the Conservatory where, every year, we create an original work together. The first time I taught that class is where 'The Hotel Nepenthe' actually came from. I'd written a bunch of two-person scenes and monologues and we threw them all together and started rehearsing them, and that's where that play came from. That's where we discovered the idea of the hotel, and I started rewriting the material with that in mind.

"By the time it was produced by The Actors' Shakespeare Project, it was in a much different version," added the playwright. "It had a cast of ten actors and was a full two-act play. Last year we did an adaptation of James Baldwin's 'Giovanni's Room.' Another year the students did all the writing, and I directed.

"This year, we were looking at a book by Luis Jorge Borges, 'The Book of Imaginary Beings,' " Kuntz went on to say. "It's not really a novel; it's more like a compendium of fantastical creatures, like mermaids and sylphs and elves. That was where we started off from, doing improv and stage compositions, and this play emerged for me. I just started writing it for the students to perform, based on things that we'd done in class. I've never done that before--written a play in real time for a company of actors I was rehearsing with during the day.

"The text is only very obliquely connected to the Borges, inspired by it," added the playwright. "I didn't expect to be writing a play, but here I am! That will be going up in February, so I have to bang it out, probably before they go on winter break.

"It's kind of crazy, but I've done crazy things before," Kuntz related. "That's how 'Starfuckers' was born. This guy called me one day, and said, 'I'm doing this festival of one-person shows in a couple of months, would you want to be part of it?' And I said, 'Sure!' And he says, 'Well, here's the thing--it has to be a new play. It can't be one you've done before. Do you have a new show?' And I paused, and then said, 'Yes!'--even though I didn't. I was totally lying.

"And he says, 'Oh, that's great! What's it called?' And I blurted, 'Starfuckers!' because that was just the first title that popped into my head. And he asked, 'What's it about?,' and I say, 'Oh, you know, it's about sex and celebrity,' and he says, 'Great, tell me more!' So I say, 'Well, I'm still working on it...' And he says, 'OK, Maybe you could send me a script in four weeks or so.' So I get off the phone thinking, 'Okay, great, I've got to write a play, and I've got four weeks to do it because this guy wants the script, and he thinks I already wrote it.'

"But, you know, it was great, because I had to sit down and start pounding it out, and I don't think that play would have existed if I hadn't ventured that. After the festival I worked on it some more and it turned out to be a pretty good show. I'm hoping that will be the case with this show in February. Sometimes I think plays are best when they're written really fast and you don't have time to think--when there's this sort of exquisite pressure going on, making you produce something out of nothing."

Meantime, there's still "The Balcony," and Kuntz is clearly enthusiastic about the production.

"I'm really excited for it, and feel so lucky to have the opportunity to work on this play," he told EDGE. "It's definitely the biggest thing I've ever directed. I really tried to find the humor in it, the weirdness in it. There's a dream ballet of Tears, Blood and Sperm. And this really crazy line dance to a pop song. And confetti cannons. And guys running around in beaver costumes. Oh, and a 6-foot inflatable penis. You really don't want to miss that!

"I ordinarily don't have a design team," Kuntz noted. "It's usually me with the glue gun and some duct tape, and I do all the sound and lights myself. The design team for 'The Balcony' is amazing: Cristina Todesco is creating the set and lights by Jeff Adelberg and Gail Buckley doing the costumes and David Reiffel creating all the sound effects. I'm beside myself!"

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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.