The Maids x 2
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 29, 2006
The prospect of seeing Jean Genet's play The Maids twice in a single evening may strike you as daunting or ludicrous or enlightening; I have to admit that, having seen a quite commendable production of this piece less than a year ago in the very same theatre, I certainly didn't feel a strong need to come back to the work not one but two more times at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre. But this venerable off-off-Broadway venue—long the home of Jean Cocteau Repertory—is now housing a brand new theatre troupe, the EgoPo/Cocteau, a merger of JCR with a New Orleans-based company that lost its home in Hurricane Katrina. Lane Savadove is artistic director of this new entity, and The Maids x 2 is his and the company's introduction to the New York theatre community. So it felt imperative to have a look, any possible redundancy notwithstanding.
It is, most noticeably, a very long look: though it's advertised as running 2 hours, 40 minutes, the evening clocked in at more than 3-1/2 hours, including an intermission of fully one hour, during which the unnecessarily elaborate and busy set for the first rendition of The Maids was replaced by the spartan ugly one on which the second version is played. I was tantalized by the promise that Maids #2 would be performed in the round (if you're familiar with the Bouwerie Lane's deep, squarish proscenium stage you'll understand why), and indeed audience members are placed around the set (on folding chairs behind and on either side of the action), though to what purpose apart from being able to prove the claim I could not say. I will say that the transformation of the space, such as it is, did not strike me as being interesting or impressive enough to justify my having to linger in the basement of the theatre for an hour.
The point of The Maids x 2 is, according to a note in the program, to enable audiences to compare and contrast the "traditional" approach to staging the play (i.e., with a female cast in what Savadove describes here as "a fully-realized fantasy world") with Genet's intended, more subversive conception of the piece (i.e., with a male cast, who portray prisoners who are "imagining the life of two inferior servants"). So the question is, does the juxtaposition add value to the auditor: do the two approaches inform one another, enlarging the experience of the play?
For me, the answer is a resounding no, and I think part of the reason is that although Savadove has made his Maids look quite different from each other, he hasn't made them sound or feel very different at all. Both productions are played at hystrionic level, pretty much unvarying throughout; both are violent and highly physicalized; both feature actors/actresses leaping all over the available furniture with no apparent motivation (would a wealthy young woman really jump all over her bed as if it were a trampouline? would prisoners sharing a small cell stand on their sink and toilet?) Savadove seems interested in sensational effects more than psychological insight.
More problematic is the fact that, while the female rendition of the piece anchors the maids' fantasies of tormenting and killing their demanding mistress in a reality that we can understand, no such grounding exists in the male version. Savadove gives us two men in a filthy jail cell who refer to each other using feminine names and pronouns and a guard whom they call "Madame." Why does this guard change into a red dress when he arrives in the prisoners' cell? Where did the red dress come from? What does the guard mean when he orders one of the prisoners to go out and find him a taxi? Where does the prisoner "go"? I went into this second round of The Maids assuming that the prisoners would be role-playing, but there's nothing in this production supporting that idea. I was confused: what are we supposed to understand about these men who don't seem to be pretending to be servants and mistress but instead appear to actually think that, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, that's who they actually are?
Surely Deathwatch is the Genet play about fantasy and the dynamics of dominance and submission inside a prison. The Maids performed with men acting the roles of women is "gender-bending" (a term applied, incorrectly I think, to this production); such a rendition might have something interesting to say about gender roles, sexuality, power. But I don't know what The Maids set inside a men's prison is about at all.
A few more notes about what I saw: there are a couple of worthy performances here, both in the role of Solange—Leah Loftin has many potent moments in the first half, while Kevin V. Smith's technical prowess is quite dazzling throughout the second. But the casts are uneven, with J.J. Brennan as Claire particularly out of his depth (he is made to perform the end of the play completely nude, for which he gets points for guts given the very intimate setting). There are practical aspects of the design that are troublesome as well, such as the dust raised, in very close proximity to audience members, every time the prisoners' mattresses are turned over (this happens several times during the course of the play), and the incongruity between the soiled, torn prison uniforms worn by Smith and Brennan and the sparkling white Gap underwear they're sporting beneath them. Attention to details like these might go at least part of the way toward making the production more effective.