nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 15, 2005
We meet Solange first. She enters the ultra-glamorous bedroom of her employer, a movie starlet whom she calls—sometimes deferentially, sometimes ironically—only "Madame." She pauses to admire herself in Madame's vanity makeup mirror, pursing brick-red beestung lips, soaking in the decadent grandeur of the place. We feel how far out of reach is this display of conspicuous consumption to this humble young woman; we feel her desperate envy for it; and we feel her disgust at herself for feeling envious.
Such is the power of Amanda Jones's career-transforming performance in Jean Cocteau Rep's new production of The Maids; such, too, is the potent complexity of this seminal existential work by Jean Genet, which wraps desire, illusion, and ritual inside a bleak philosophical exploration of the limits to freedom and choice. This production, tautly directed by Ernest Johns and designed by Roman Tatarowicz, Nicole Frachisseur, and Richard Dunham in a style frankly patterned after Hollywood '40s film noir, reveals Genet's intentions to stark and jolting effect.
Solange, inhabited with a gutsy take-no-prisoners savage intensity by Jones, is one of the maids; the other is her sister, Claire, who is played more politely, opaquely, and intellectually by Kate Holland. Claire soon joins Solange in Madame's bedroom, and we watch as they play out a scene which, we realize halfway through, is one they've played at many times before. It's a game, actually, that fuses the maids' infatuation with Madame (or, more to the point, with her trappings of gorgeous clothes, expensive jewels, and a sexy, dangerous boyfriend), their hatred of her, and their own self-destructiveness. Claire pretends to be Madame, and orders Solange ("as" Claire) to dress her for the evening; once the transformation is complete, the revenge fantasy takes over and "Claire" prepares to strangle "Madame," savoring a prelude to the kill that includes hideous insults and ominous threats. Inevitably, the game is forced to end before its consummation: the real Madame has in fact come home, and needs both her maids to attend her.
Tonight will apparently be different, however. Solange and Claire plot to do the murder in real life; they seem ready and able to turn their fantasy into actuality. To tell you any more is pointless: if you know the play, then you know how it turns out. If you don't, you want to stay surprised.
Jones, Holland, and Natalie Ballesteros, who is extremely effective as the self-involved Madame, make a persuasive team here; I was especially impressed at the way Ballesteros's Madame seems to occupy an entirely different universe than Jones's Solange, with Holland's Claire running interference, migrating between the two. Madame is a hateful symbol of thoughtless, classist noblesse oblige; importantly, we're acutely aware that she has no idea how her employees see her—just as we also always understand that the prison that Solange, particularly, seems to be trapped inside is mostly of her own fantastical making.
So there's plenty to think about as The Maids progresses and after it's over; also much to enjoy, for, defying expectation, this is a neat, entertaining puzzle of a play, engaging us as we try to comprehend the shifting relationships and resentments that bubble up and then dissipate among the three characters and their sometime alter egos.