French playwright Jean Genet died in 1986, but he must be cackling and merrily sucking on Gauloises in his grave over the irony that today’s society holds criminals in even higher esteem than he did when he wrote “Deathwatch” in 1942.
We worship our felons and give them celebrity status through book and movie deals and television coverage. .
Feeding on this concept that crime pays — and handsomely — the Actors’ Theatre of Washington (ATW) and the Washington Shakespeare Company (WSC) have jointly staged a visually stunning production of “Deathwatch” playing in a raw, unfinished space next door to the Warehouse Theater.
Theater verite is the name of the game here, as theatergoers are led to a cramped, cell-like space where you either sit on chairs a death row inmate might find uncomfortable after about half an hour, or on cushions on the floor. The set is literally a cement block obscured by a scrim that is so close you can practically reach out and touch the actors. The effect, created by co-directors Lee Mikeska Gardner and Matty Griffiths, is clammy and claustrophobic enough to scare straight even the most crime-dazzled patron.
Our eyes are assaulted by flashing images and frequent blackouts, and our ears are pricked by synthesized heartbeats and disquieting sounds. Everything about this production is meant to make you feel trapped, like an inmate.
“Deathwatch,” in case you haven’t caught on, takes place in jail, as three inmates sharing a cell vie for power and control. The head honcho is Green Eyes (Peter Klaus), a pugilistic he-man who killed a young girl and awaits execution.
He is doted on by Maurice (Jeffrey Johnson), a young street hustler who gets by on his pretty face, and George Lefranc (Christopher Henley), a burglar who is desperate to commit an act that will make him admired and feared.
As the days drip by, the three fight, have sex, play chess and pick on each other — the balance of power endlessly shifting and changing shape. While the three men torture and terrorize themselves to death, a lone guard (John Francis Bauer) walks the perimeter, a silent figure of menace (the effect is ruined when he opens his mouth to speak in milquetoast cadences). The emotions and boredom build to a sweaty, paranoid climax, until George is forced to kill, to free-fall into the swooning release of a desperate act.
The symbolism, the poetic language that sometimes reminds you of Gertrude Stein’s tonal experiments, and the glorification of base acts and the criminal class gives “Deathwatch” a beetled, scuttling energy.
The visual aspects of this production are superb, and if the acting were as compelling, you’d really have something here. There are hailstorms of emotion, chest-thumping and anguished howling from the trio of actors, but it seldom amounts to anything except unintentionally hilarious expressions of angst.
Mr. Johnson has some bright moments as the mollifier and the casual seducer, as does Mr. Klaus in his goose-pimply re-enactment of the murder and Mr. Henley as the killer wannabe, but overall, they never gel as a troupe. Everyone seems to be spinning in their own solitary confinement of over-acting, which is off-putting, to say the least, in such a small space.
After nearly two hours of “Deathwatch,” you feel unjustly imprisoned yourself, and all you want to do is take a shower and swear off reading Dominick Dunne for life.
WHAT: “Deathwatch” by Jean Genet
WHERE: Warehouse Theater’s Second Stage, 1021 Seventh St. NW
WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 20.
MAXIMUM RATING:FOUR STARS