nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
April 24, 2010
Jean Genet's The Maids is a demanding work to put on. The challenges aren't logistical—the set calls for little more than a lady's bedroom, and the cast is made up of just three characters, Madame and her two maids, the sisters Claire and Solange. The plot centers around the maids re-enacting their relationship with Madame in sadomasochistic rituals while she is away. Despite this scandalous central conceit, not all that much actually really happens on stage. There is mostly talk—talk of murder, talk of suffocating in flowers, talk of sex, talk of boundaries.
The difficulty lies in parsing and enlivening the enormous amount of dialogue; the action lies in the words themselves. The language is literary and astonishing, particularly in the scenes when the maids are role-playing. Genet discloses the intricacies of the women's relationships in slow doses. Power gets passed back and forth, the dynamic is in constant flux. Without airtight dramaturgy, any production runs the risk of putting a couple of crazy people on stage to rave for two hours.
The actors in Curious Frog Theatre Company's production cannot be accused of not giving it their all. The length and density of the play requires stamina and commitment. Iracel Rivero as the younger, more fanciful Claire in particular keeps the pace moving forward and inhabits the role with a silent film star look. However, director Tracy Cameron Francis has left her players floundering with the hard parts, and they often can barely keep their heads above the tide of words. Presumably, the choice to cast two actors who look nothing alike as sisters is in line with the company's mission of showing "a multicultural perspective" through "non-traditional casting," but you have to wonder how this serves the work in this case, particularly when only one of the sisters speaks with a British accent.
Similarly questionable is the casting of Madame. It's not so much the fact that the role is played in drag. Genet himself might have approved, as he originally intended all of the roles to be played by men, complicating the concept of play-acting and theatricality that is one of the themes of the play. So much depends on the entrance of Madame, so much is said about her before and after her appearance in the dead center of the action, that a terrifying, unctuous, "bittersweet" (as the maids describe her) portrayal pulled off by a man in drag could have turned the production on its head in interesting ways. It's the fact that this Madame looks like a truck-stop hooker (ratty blonde wig, hot pink dress, clunky leopard-print heels), one who makes do with mincing and mugging, that undermines the moments of true obsession the other actors have built in the previous hour. It's funny, but everyone is afraid to laugh. And how are we supposed to take Solange and Claire's subsequent desperation seriously?
The production is already stripped enough of context without these dramatic choices. It is a mid-20th century French play, after all, translated into a sometimes florid English, dealing at its most superficial level with issues of class (master and servant) that we are already once removed from. Add to this a set plastered with hot pink Betsey Johnson garment bags, occasional disco music, and nearly two hours without intermission, and we're left searching for something to hold onto besides the strength of the writing itself.