The Warehouse Theater
1021 Seventh St. NW
Metro: Gallery Pl./Chinatown
$20, (888) 494-TIXS or boxofficetickets.com through March 20
“Deathwatch,” a co-production of The Actors’ Theatre of Washington and The Washington Shakespeare Company, is a graphic tale about madness, the criminal world and homosexuality in France. The play explores the tenuous alliances between three prisoners confined to a single cell as they vie for domination.
“Deathwatch” - by French writer, dramatist and convicted felon Jean Genet, one of the leading figures of avant-garde theatre - consists of a small cast and is quite confined by the literal space the producer has to work with as well as the theoretical space where the play is meant to unfold. George Lefranc, Maurice, and “Green Eyes” are three convicts sharing a cell under the constant watchful eye of a particular guard. Green Eyes is one of the most handsome and celebrated in the prison for a heinous crime he committed. This bizarre act involved the strangling of a woman and her subsequent burial in a flower patch. Coincidentally, Green Eyes also has a faithful girlfriend who he eagerly awaits to see during visitation day and tries to keep in touch with via his resentful literate cellmate, Lefranc. Green Eyes is so obsessed with his girlfriend that he has a large tattoo version of her on his chest which his cellmates eye jealously.
Maruice is a small time crook who has a crush on Green Eyes and tries to win his favor by constantly portraying Lefranc as a fraud. Lefranc, at odds with his two cellmates, aspires to gain notoriety as one of the great criminal masterminds. Lefranc is bitter toward Maurice, who constantly puts him down as a pathetic weakling, and is incensed by Green Eyes for committing a crime more infamous than his own. Although the stage is not arranged as a typical cell would be, the set designer did a commendable job with the limited space. The setting has an extremely confining, claustrophobic feel. Cinder blocks are used to give a rough texture to the cell and neon lights were used to represent the bars of the prison door. A transparent screen has also been placed between the seats and stage and is brilliantly used as a way of allowing the audience to watch the play and yet be removed by the actions on stage.
The acting is worthy of praise, even if at times a little overdone. There is a perpetual pent-up energy portrayed within the characters that may not be realistic in a person once they become institutionalized. The slow slip into insanity and the never-ending petty bickering grows difficult to watch but is no doubt all too realistic.
The main weakness with “Deathwatch” is not the production, but rather its very uneven, ambiguous script. There is far too much dialogue for too little plot. Perhaps the overacting is a way to make up for this flaw. The play touches on themes of criminality, homosexuality and racism but never fully commits or delves into any one specific topic. Instead, it flutters back and forth hoping to keep the audience placated by playing catch-up with the plot.
Admittedly, there are only so many variables that can occur in a prison cell, but “Deathwatch” does not play all the cards it could have dealt. Even the grand finale was far too predictable. In all, “Deathwatch” is a play in which all involved clearly give their best and ultimately produce a decent show.