Jean Genet’s “The Screens,” which is getting a rare, rich and provocative production at the Guthrie Theater, is a sprawling, messy hurricane of a play. Yet, as JoAnne Akalaitis’ new version shows, it’s also a work of subtlety and depth.
“The Screens,” set during the Algerian Revolution of the 1950s and ’60s, appears at first glance to be a political satire taking the side of the oppressed Algerians against their silly French colonial oppressors. Even on this level the play is provocative. The colonials are cartoon figures, Colonel Blimps in circus drag parading through orange groves and rose gardens, all the while negating the humanity of the Arab natives. Likewise, the narcissistic French Legionnaires are reduced to sexually repressed, strutting peacocks projecting homoerotic heat into the “beauty” of brutality.
The political aspects serve mostly as a frame for Genet’s denser, darker and more daring observations. If “The Screens” is a tale of the oppressed, it’s even more a visionary tale of self-oppression, self-compromise and ultimate self-redemption.
Entering the theater, the audience confronts a transformed Guthrie. A huge net hangs overhead, creating a deeper yet embracing environment. A sand-colored drop cloth covers the stage. In the rear, an undulating ramp bridges the stage with stairs that pierce a backdrop and run off into nothingness. The lighting by Jennifer Tipton — garishly white, pointedly articulate or darkly moody — vibrates with the emotional resonances of each of the 16 scenes that unwind over the play’s four hours.
Dotting the stage are robed and veiled Algerians, posing Legionnaires, chic 19th-century colonials, tattered peasants, garishly outfitted whores, an entire world seen through the eyes of the outsider (in Eiko Ishoka’s sumptuous, often wittily exaggerated costumes), parading in slow motion to Middle Eastern-influenced music in a wave of gnarled, angry, socially stereotyped humanity.
Emerging from this horde are Said (Jesse Borrego) and his mother (Ruth Maleczech), traveling over the desert to his wedding with a suitcase containing wedding presents. He’s so poor he has to marry Leila, the ugliest young woman in the area. The mother celebrates this humiliation and Said resists it. They discuss the riches in the suitcase. They dance, and as they do the suitcase opens, revealing nothing. Their wealth is in their imaginations and they roar with laughter.
The play, reminiscent of Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” though not so tidily structured, becomes a telling of Said’s journey toward self-discovery. As the poorest of an oppressed people, he has been totally negated. In Genet’s subtlest stroke, Said alone among the Algerians doesn’t resist this negation but accepts it, uncompromisingly, as a path to inner freedom.
Said’s journey parallels the Algerian war, his growing antisocial feeling contrasting with the increasing socialization of his compatriots. Initially, the Algerians are as tattered and beaten as Said. In contrast, the French are elegant, idle, obsessed with cleanliness and buoyed up by their brutality. As the Algerians’ cause grows, they slowly begin adopting the principles of the colonials and meet brutality with brutality. Their ultimate goal becomes to take over the French bourgeois traits and become oppressors themselves.
Said’s journey parallels that of Genet — an outcast, homosexual thief and prostitute who accepted his role as social pariah and looked for personal redemption in inner freedom. Said alone recognizes that revolt is not freedom but the manifestation of a desire to gain power and control. His freedom lies in negating bourgeois values, nationalism, causes, social conditioning, principles, religions, even friends and family. He’s the outcast as innocent, finally betraying even his own people, the ultimate act of aloneness and liberation, besides death.
Akalaitis’ production is beautiful, ironically witty, playful and tough, presented in Paul Schmidt’s raw, Americanized, profane but poetic translation. Image follows upon image with each location defined by a moving screen upon which actors paint the necessary props. Akalaitis pushes scenes to the limit and the entire play takes on a rolling momentum.
The first scenes begin stiffly but as scene rolls into scene, a wave of total theater supporting Genet’s increasingly spiritual dialectic, the production becomes all-absorbing. Scenes in the whorehouse, a colonial farm, the court of the Islamic judge, the town square, are keenly envisioned, vibrant and dynamic, leading up to the extraordinary scenes in the Land of the Dead, which are played above the stage on the netting.
There, Algerians and French share equal ground and discover that dying was far easier than living.
The production’s strength, like Genet’s, lies in its ability to create strong individuals from among the mass of almost 70 characters — each superbly acted in an objective, uninterpreted style. At the top are Borrego’s physical, energized Said, Maleczech’s dominatingly negative earth mother and Lauren Tom’s wryly ironic, passionate Leila.
But scene by scene, new characters emerge and dominate: Lola Pashalinski and Shawn Judge as whores, Erick Avari and Richard S. Iglewski as colonials, Isabel Monk and Kati Kuroda as prophetic Arab women, Ben Halley Jr. as the voice of a dead revolutionary, Stephen Yoakam as a swaggering gendarme, Peter Thoemke as a strutting lieutenant and Stephen Pelinski as a cruel sergeant.
This is a play that demands engagement and stamina from an audience, a play that one wrestles with as Genet challenges cherished principles and beliefs of both right and left. It’s a play by a man who was able to look directly into himself as few do, to risk isolation in an attempt to uncover what’s true in himself, and it’s that which Akalaitis has presented, without flinching.