Jean Genet's last play was "The Screens" (1961), a gigantic anti-epic of the Algerian Revolution. Genet's play is rarely performed anywhere, and when it is, it's usually cut.
Not so in Joanne Akailitis' staging at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. There, "The Screens" is getting the full treatment: huge cast, lavish costumes and a 5 1/2-hour production (with an hour's break for a Moroccan supper served in the lobby).
The Twin Cities critics were dazzled by Akailitis' staging, although not necessarily stirred by the play. Robert Collins of the Twin Cities Reader, for example, found Genet's script "diffuse and maddeningly idiosyncratic" and wished that Akailitis had dared to cut and reshape it.
Mike Steele of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune called it "a sprawling, messy hurricane of a play," beneath which could be seen the story of a man jettisoning all social concerns and walking his own path.
"This is a play by a man who was able to risk isolation in an attempt to uncover what's true in himself, and it's that which Akailitis has presented, without flinching," Steele wrote. "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."
Judith Lewis of City Pages conceded the theatricality of the design and the performances (including that of Ruth Maleczech as the hero's mother), but felt that "Akailitis' brilliant visions . . . clarify little. They only distract from the hopelessness behind Genet's poetry and turn 'The Screens' into a bizarre sort of pleasure. But it's a cerebral pleasure, eliciting little emotional response."
Richard Christiansen, Chicago Tribune: "Where this production succeeds, with truly spectacular effects, is in its grand design. But the larger and infinitely more complex view of man's fate as seen by a quintessential outcast is not always clear. . . . "
Roy Close of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch: "It is not pretty. It is not nice. But, boy, is it theatrical. It overwhelms you gradually, piling up image on image, like the wind building a sand dune."
"The Screens" closes its limited run at the Guthrie Sunday night, a run that it would have enjoyed even if not one critic had given it a positive review.
Meanwhile, on Broadway, David Hare's new play, "The Secret Rapture," closes after two weeks because Frank Rich's review in the New York Times wasn't enthusiastic enough. (See last week's Stage Wire.) Which is the more civilized theater community?
Rich did endorse Broadway's new revival of "Gypsy" with Tyne Daly, seen this summer at the Music Center. In a word, the show was "scorching." Clive Barnes of the New York Post, on the other hand, felt that this "Gypsy" was only sufficient "to keep a few camp fires burning." Odds are it will be in camp for a while.
IN QUOTES: Frank Rich, quoted in Variety: "Critics don't close plays. Producers close plays."