The Excess of Saint Genet: Exquisite and Horrifying

Written by Kaitlin McCarthy
Saint Genet dancers in Paradisiacal Rites
Photo by Dan Hawkins

An entire wheat field, constructed stalk by stalk. A throne enveloped in flowers. Dirty glassware strewn about like the vestiges of last night’s bourgeois soirée. Twisted pheasants suspended in mid-air, spinning, caught in the moment of free-fall just after the kill shot. The stage’s elaborate set design speaks to an excess that is reflected in the person of Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell, director of Saint Genet, who began the show downstage center simultaneously drinking wine and bleeding himself with live leeches. Already noticeably drunk and practically drooling, he has been on a mission to exhaust himself since dawn, and by the time the house opens at 7:00 PM the performers have already been going for several hours. They will continue for four hours more. Saint Genet’s Paradisiacal Rites is rich with imagery, but there is no illusion here. The exhaustion, the blood, the shot-gunned beers, and the many, many hits of nitrous oxide—all are real. Substances taken throughout the performance like self-flagellation were constant and excessive.

The cast of characters was undefined, but contained striking differences. Mitchell and two others, whose attire referenced 1920s wealth, contrasted sharply with shirtless men in simple long johns performing slow and reaching movements in the glowing wheat field. Their identities fraught with class associations, Mitchell and his cronies seemed to be running the show, but appeared worse for the wear. Other levels of hierarchy were introduced as Mitchell repeatedly received a kiss from two women in gauzy white dresses, on whom he subsequently spat wine, and then repeated the gesture toward a man dressed as a masked clown.  The clown man performed a poem about a lover beaten to death, and his speech and gesture revealed him to the audience as queer. For the rest of the show he was shamed repeatedly. Dressed again as a little boy, then kneeling before a man who rejects his intimate touch, and then in a disturbing party scene where he is physically forced to expose his asshole to the audience. Three times. “Just do the trick, c’mon, just do it. It’s still funny. Stay down,” the crowd jeered as the queer protested more forcefully each time. Saint Genet masterfully portrays the kind of horrors that occur under the guise of “just having fun.” Beauty is layered in with the ugly throughout the show, which leaves the audience at once riveted and horrified.

Paradisiacal Rites
Photo by Dan Hawkins
The most beautiful part of the evening was the long sequence of unison dancing performed by choreographer Jessie Smith and joined by Matt Drews, James Kent, and Calie Swedberg. The movement was clear, repetitive, and ritualized. The four extended, lunged, bowed, arched, and exalted while bathed in golden light. Stunning partner work of exquisite counterbalances and spinning lifts mirrored the hanging pheasants and similarly suspended time in perpetual motion. Swedberg, in particular, was thoughtful in her movement and potent in her stage presence throughout.
Paradisiacal Rites is demanding, arrogant, pretentious, and possibly genius. It asks the audience for three plus hours, which is long, but it seems so little to give in comparison to what the performers are offering. The show is an uncomfortable intersection with entertainment. Sitting in cushy theater seats and casual clothing, chitchatting and flipping through their programs, the audience seems almost inappropriate. Perhaps there is another disquieting hierarchy here—one where people pay money to sit and watch the kind of extreme experience and brutality many of them will never experience, and then complain later that it was too long, or too weird. Paradisiacal Rites could use some editing perhaps, but for the amount these performers are giving, they should feel free to take as much as they like in return.
Paradisiacal Rites performed at On the Boards May 16–19, 2013. The performance reviewed was that of Friday, May 17. More information about Saint Genet can be found at http://www.saintgenet.org and http://www.ontheboards.org