March 17, 2012

"The Maids" Should Be a Little Dirtier

Jean Genet was the enfant terrible of French writers.  And, as a convicted thief and a defiantly openly gay man, he reveled in his status as an outsider. So it was perfectly in character when Genet stole elements of a notoriously grisly murder case as the basis for his first second play The Maids. 

It revolves around two sisters who plot to kill the rich woman who employs them.  And, to poke a thumb even deeper in the eye of French society, Genet’s original stage directions called for the sisters to be portrayed by male actors.

His director ignored that suggestion but the play still scandalized theatergoers when it opened in 1947. Alas, the Red Bull Theater Company’s revival of The Maids that opened this week at St. Clements Church is unlikely to arouse much emotion of any kind.

That’s a shame because Genet’s outrage at the maddening disparities that existed between the moneyed and working classes in his time still, as the Occupy Movement attests, resonates in ours. 

The actresses playing the sisters and their mistress are all game.  But the story calls for them to whirl through a kaleidoscope of emotions over just 90 minutes and each woman is better at some than others.

Still, I’m putting most of the blame for the production’s tepidity on the shoulders of its director Jesse Berger.  And that starts with the odd decision he made to build a box on stage, place the bedroom set in which the action takes place inside it and then to seat the audience around all four open sides of the box.   

I get that this is supposed to amp up the intimacy and make the audience feel like voyeurs but it also means that you miss out on some of the actors' expressions and even dialog when they face the in the opposite direction. Try to get a side seat if you go before the run ends on April 1 because the ones at the top and bottom of the set are uncomfortable looking stools.

Berger fiddles with the content too, changing at least one key scene towards the end of the play from the way Genet wrote it. But the biggest problem is the production's inability to create the atmosphere of fear and futility that would drive the women to take such desperate measures.

Genet has the sisters take turns being the aggressor as they fantasize about the murder and he’s laced sadomasochism and intimations of incest into the games they play as they goad one another along.  But although there’s some kissing and rolling on the bed, there’s no real sexiness or danger in this version of The Maids. Without the threat of transgressiveness, the play can come off as silly.

“Well,” the woman sitting next to me sighed heavily after the actors took their bows.  “That was about nothing.” That may be an overstatement.  But I think it’s fair to say that this production of The Maids isn’t about enough.

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