Prison life at the theater

“Deathwatch,” produced by the Actors’ Theatre of Washington and the Washington Shakespeare Company, presents a challenge for any audience member. First, there is the stuffy and intimate venue. The Warehouse Theater holds 40 people in a room equivalent to the size of a Thurston quad, and half of the audience is asked to sit on pillows on the floor, with some merely inches from the stage. Secondly, there’s the subject matter. “Deathwatch” is not for the close-minded or faint of heart. The play is a glimpse into the lives of three men, Green Eyes (Peter Klaus), Maurice (Jeffery Johnson) and George (Christopher Henley), who are imprisoned in a French jail. An hour and a half of homoeroticism ensues as Maurice and George vie for the dominant Green Eyes’ attention.

Writing while in prison in 1942, Jean Genet, whose style in portraying criminals is reminiscent of his fellow French author Albert Camus, explores the tenuous alliances that prisoners must create with their cell-mates and guards while incarcerated. The play’s single, minimal set is a bare cell consisting of a few concrete blocks and a screen separating the actors from the audience, on which various images are projected.

For the first five minutes of the production, lights are flickered on and off in short intervals while the actors scramble to different tableaus of typical prison life, such as playing checkers, smoking cigarettes and divvying up bread. Suddenly, an image that is now permanently etched into my retinas is presented: one prisoner has positioned another over a bench, both naked, while the third prisoner and guard look on and a certain sex act is performed.

Once the initial shock subsided, I was able to concentrate on the rest of the plot, which revolves mainly around Green Eyes’ girlfriend. Although he is guilty of murdering a young girl by strangulation, his girlfriend has continued to correspond with him while he is incarcerated. Green Eyes, however, is illiterate and relies upon George to read and write his letters to his girl, which becomes a sore point with Maurice. To win Green Eyes’ affection, he accuses George of making a play for the girlfriend in his letters. George breaks down and confesses to the aforementioned flirtation, which is revealed in a letter from the girlfriend that questions the actual authorship of the letters. Because Green Eyes is to be executed by guillotine in a month, he decides that she must be killed.

Even though George yearns to be the one to kill her upon his release, Maurice, who claims that he is the best looking, says, “With a mug like mine, I can do anything I like. Even when I’m guilty, they think I’m innocent.” Eventually, they decide to draw straws.

The outcome of their lot is irrelevant because Green Eyes soon promises his girl to their prison guard, in exchange for better priviobserver for most of the play, or paces slowly and silently to each side of the cell, with the exception of a scene where he suggestively places his gun in and out of George’s mouth while the other two convicts are asleep. By now, George has taken to muttering “”We’ve got to kill each other off,” when he isn’t fighting with the other prisoners.

The efforts of the actors of “Deathwatch” are worthy of praise. After all, it requires a lot from any actor, regardless of one’s sexuality, to portray the scenes required of Klaus, Henley, Johnson and Bauer. The three prisoners are able to portray the violent, homoerotic and desperate scenes with finesse, but the talent falls short with Bauer’s performance as a guard. His role is completely irrelevant because for the first half of the play he does little more than eerily walk in slow motion – and when he finally does contribute lines, they do little to enhance the play.

Yes, the frank sexual content of the play was surprising (Think HBO’s “Oz,” except in person, and less than five feet away from you), but it was truly more difficult to watch the arguments between Maurice, Green Eyes and George. When the characters aren’t putting their hands down each other’s prison uniforms, they are harassing, shouting, fighting and attempting to kill one another. While this occurs, the screen dividing the audience from the actors is projected with fuzzy images of bloody hands, guillotines, Green Eyes’ victim and a scene from Picasso’s “Guernica.”

Combined with the shouting, this makes the hour and a half-long play a very tense and challenging experience, leaving audience members clearly shaken.

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