In the midst of just its third season, Sundown Collaborative Theatre has proved itself a bold, and sometimes visionary, group. Performing a healthy mix of new and original work with more established, yet still fringe, pieces sprinkled in, the kids at Sundown are making a solid contribution to the local theater scene.
With that in mind, let’s turn a critical eye towards Sundown’s latest offering, Jean Genet’s first play, Deathwatch.
Lesser known than some of Genet’s other works, Deathwatch carries with it all the disclaimers any first work might. The primary disclaimer being that while Genet was considered a genius visionary by several of France’s most erudite thinkers, most writers’ early work carries with it a less polished, rawer construction that simply is not of the quality for which they will later be known.
In this respect, Genet is no different. And in some ways, Sundown is following a similar pattern. While their work is imaginative and bold, there are still growing pains for this young group. Deathwatch is an apt example of Sundown’s relative newcomer status in the theater world. A minor road bump on what otherwise is likely a long, smooth stretch of highway.
Set in a dank prison cell, which the basement of J & J’s Pizza more than accurately represents, Deathwatch pits three prisoners against each other as they struggle through conflicts between each other and themselves.
Green Eyes (Travis Stuebing) is the condemned alpha male of the group. Lefranc (Cody Lucas), often simply called Georgie, is the soon to be released wannabe. And Maurice (Robert Linder) is the recently incarcerated homosexual who often serves as foil and instigator.
Known for writing conflicted characters, Genet draws inspiration from his own experience behind bars. In fact, the three men could easily be described as different versions of Genet’s own psyche as the piece almost reads like a catharsis for the author, who wrote the play while actually imprisoned.
The three actors perform with great conviction but ultimately fall victim to a common pratfall of collaborative theater. Without a true director—Lucas, Linder and Stuebing direct themselves—the actors lack perspective on the material and their performances. A fourth set of objective eyes would have helped maintain focus throughout the sometimes convoluted waves of dialogue.
As a one-act play that is totally comprised of one extended scene, the actors consistently miss the natural transitions and arcs inherent in the script, often too easily giving in to the raw emotionality of the piece and losing sight of the bigger picture.
Stuebing oozes charismatic cool as the leader of the bunch but never fully instills the inherent fear of his impending doom, only ever teasing at the uneasiness bubbling just under the surface. As a result, his occasional emotional outbursts appear random and undirected—the equivalent of shouting at the rain. Though the obvious source of his consternation is his rapidly approaching beheading, it’s unclear exactly where or to whom he is directing his rage. And despite Genet’s tendency to not clearly define his characters, instead leaving them to openly play out their inner thought process for everyone to see, Steubing’s portrayal is particularly scattered and unfocused at times.
However, in his defense, Lucas and Linder suffer the same setback. Linder’s Maurice is conniving, clearly pitting himself against Lefranc for Green Eyes’ favor. Likewise, Lucas’ Lefranc is the embodiment of the classic inferiority complex. Yet, like Green Eyes, and in accordance with how Genet wrote his characters, both mishandle their sudden outbursts, often not knowing exactly where to direct their attacks. Are the tantrums the result of inner turmoil? Are they directed particularly at another character? Is someone else to blame for their fury?
Naturally, there is always a literal combatant, but the complicated and deep psyches that Genet imparted on his characters indicate there is always a deeper meaning to the proceedings. The actors miss the mark in this deep reading of the characters and ultimately fail in delivering anything more than a literal reading of the material. Unflinchingly raw and emotional, but shallow nevertheless.
Additionally, Sundown shows its age in the selection of Deathwatch in the first place. Not because of the anonymity of its author to most Americans, or the risque subject matter, but its excruciating similarity to a show from their recently completed second season, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. One of Genet’s main champions in France, Sartre’s play about three people in hell is eerily close to the basic premise of Deathwatch. And while each has their own individual merits, to perform two alike pieces by contemporaries and friends this close together is less than ideal.
Sundown is a talented group that will succeed much more than not. And the choice to focus in original and alternative theater will naturally lead to the occasional stumble. With that in mind though, the group at Sundown is always a can’t-miss ticket as they continually push the envelope and gleefully separate the audience from their comfort zones in the name of heightened critical perspective. Deathwatch may not be a resounding success, but it also offers perhaps the only opportunity to see this rare work from a respected playwright. Rare because most theaters wouldn’t have the temerity to even attempt such an undertaking.
Sundown Collaborative Theatre does. And that by itself is reason enough to hunker down in the basement of a pizza joint in Denton and see what all the buzz is about.