nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
March 17, 2005
It is an interesting point of human behavior that we are so “shocked” by the headline describing a brutal murder and yet we immediately turn the page to read the article (or to look for more pictures). I find the concept of simultaneous repulsion and attraction extremely fascinating. Escapist Productions’ striking revival of Jean Genet’s The Maids has a marvelous balance of attractive and repulsive elements.
The Maids is Genet’s first play and continues to be one of his most frequently produced, most likely because it contains such an irresistible study of the dark reaches of the human psyche. It is a one-act, running about 75 minutes, and is based on an actual event in which two sisters savagely murdered their employer. Genet does not try to reproduce the actual incident on stage. He is more interested in probing into the psychology of illusions, oppressions, and obsessions that lead up to savage acts.
The play opens with the two sister-maids absorbed in a role-playing game that they evidently play quite often. One pretends to be the mistress of the house while the other pretends to be her sister. The objective of the game is to end on a spectacular murder of the mistress, but they never seem to get to that point. They both love and hate their mistress. They want to kill her and they want to be her. Halfway through the play, when the mistress finally enters, she is not the completely pompous tyrant that we’ve been led to expect. Instead, she shows that she can be kind and generous though still superior. Still, the maids plot to kill her. In a scene that is very funny if not somewhat morose they try to kill her by poisoning her tea, but no matter how hard they try she won’t drink it. The mistress leaves again and they return to their role-playing game, this time with much more obsession and fervor because of their failed murder attempt.
Genet makes a point of shattering the maids’ illusions. They realize that only in their role-playing world can they accomplish what they desire—freedom from oppression. At the same time they recognize that their imaginary world is meaningless and they are crushed when their illusions vanish and they are left with who they really are. In the end, their obsession with killing their mistress leads to a bitter realization that death may be the only route to freedom.
The Maids can be a difficult play to stage. The language is heavy and the characters’ warped psychology can drive actors mad. Nevertheless, director Michele Chivu does an excellent job drawing out the pathos and spotlighting Genet’s twisted and sometimes dreamlike intentions. However, I feel that there is a certain amount of eroticism missing from this production (though it’s not completely absent). The script implies that the sisters are lovers, but I didn’t really get that from this production. Perhaps that is Chivu’s intention. Chivu brilliantly uses Thomas Dunn’s lighting design to connect mood with alternating bright and dark effects. Also, the staging of the play, with the audience sitting on both sides of the playing area, lends the performance a high degree of intimacy.
The actors are practically in our laps but this doesn’t affect their focus at all. The cast gives a stunning performance. The two sisters are played by two male actors. There is some controversy over whether it was Genet’s intention to have these two female characters played by men. Regardless of that, the two men—Ax Norman as Solange and Nate Rubin as Claire—most certainly pour their souls into these two women. Norman is explosive and disturbingly psychotic, especially in his final monologue. Rubin is thoroughly captivating in his obsession to be and to kill the mistress. Elizabeth Pitman plays the mistress ("Madame") with amazing zeal. She is instantly likable and gives the play a needed boost in pace.
The Maids can be a difficult play to watch, but due to the skill and vision of all involved in this production I found it hard to take my eyes off of it.