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Strong ‘Language’ Works in Writer’s Favor

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With the surfeit of one-person shows around these days, from autobiographical breast-baring to the latest examination of Edgar Allan Poe, it’s refreshing to see one that is original not only in subject matter but also in conception and performance.

Rude Guerrilla’s Empire Theatre is hosting Arthur Hanket’s “Saint Genet: Language of the Wall,” which, in this form, first saw the light of the stage at Hollywood’s Actor’s Gang. It has since been performed in New York and at venues around the country.

Its genesis was as Hanket’s master’s of fine arts thesis, basically a montage of French playwright and novelist Jean Genet’s quotes. But Hanket has filled it, with some intimation of Genet’s life, and a penetrating probe, a la Genet himself, into Genet’s mind, heart and soul.

The play, performed by the playwright, takes place in Genet’s prison cell as he ruminates on the life sentence he has received after too many convictions for theft and prostitution. He has created, in those of his works written in prison, a mythic persona for Genet, the saint-criminal.

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On this day, he receives a letter from the president of France granting him a pardon--a freedom he’s not sure he wants. The pardon was brought about by a petition from many of France’s greatest artists, including Jean Cocteau and Jean Paul Sartre, who first called him Saint Genet.

Hanket does not look at all like Genet, but as the piece unfolds, the resemblance comes closer. Not physically, but in the tortured aura of the orphaned childhood, the years spent in penal institutions, and the spark that drew him to put pen to paper.

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Early in his life, when first sent to a reformatory, what Genet describes as a “young, pretty man” put his arm around the young Genet’s waist and began to teach him the “language of the wall.” This language, and the life that it described, bore fruit in novels such as “Our Lady of the Flowers” and plays that advanced theatrical imagery, such as “The Maids” and “The Balcony.”

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The seamless technique with which Hanket has woven moments from Genet’s life into the rich fabric of his language, all subtly shaded with his emotional and often metaphysical philosophy, is illuminated by Hanket’s performance, always riveting, always insightful, and totally honest to his subject.

It is also a physical performance, for Genet was a physical man. Hanket’s physicality inside the cell and in its periphery are almost as indicative as the words themselves.

* “Saint Genet: Language of the Wall,” Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. $10. Ends July 24. (714) 547-4688. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Arthur Hanket: Jean Genet

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A visiting production at Rude Guerrilla’s Empire Theatre, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Produced by Dave Barton, Michelle Fontenot and Don Hess. Directed by Charles Otte and Steve Rankin. Designed by Charles Otte. Costume design: Mary Ed Porter.


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