- OTHER MEDIA
- Beyond good housekeeping
- Jean Genet's murderous The Maids lives on, thanks to Cutting Ball
- By Robert Avila
- "Lean over further and behold your reflection in my shoes."
And what better mirror for a servant, you might ask, than the spit-buffed
patent leather encasing Madame's foot? With all the heightened, ritualistic
flavor of an S&M fantasy, the command spoken by a maid pretending
to be her own mistress, to another maid pretending to be the first
is already rich with the ceaseless role-playing, doubled images, shifting
power lines, and volatile desire pervading the world of The Maids.
- Of course, Jean Genet's first work for the stage is nearly 60 years
old, and doubtless does less these days to épater le bourgeois,
at least the theatergoing kind. But if the loss of shock value means a
more low-key embrace of Genet's theater of mirrors and criminal-saints,
Cutting Ball Theater's crisp, elegantly staged production affirms its still-compelling
style and darkly poetic force. And Adriana Baer's taut, intelligent direction
makes the most of playwright Martin Crimp's bracing new translation.
- The boudoir of a wealthy woman (Sigrid Sutter) is the site for The
Maids' intriguing deconstruction of appearances. Madame's two young maids,
sisters Claire (Linnea Wilson) and Solange (Jennifer Stuckert), have just
framed Madame's lover (an offstage male character) with forged letters
and accusations of theft. As they rehearse the demise (in what is clearly
a regular ritual) of their mistress, their revenge for and liberation from
a degrading servitude, the play-acting oscillates between worshipful love
and incandescent hatred for Madame, as well as love and hatred of each
other ("We cannot even love each other. Shit does not love shit!").
When the sisters learn Monsieur has gone free on bail, they fear their
plot will be uncovered, and decide to murder their mistress immediately.
- If Genet originally thought to have young boys in the roles of the
maids so as to give fundamental attention to the theme of role-playing,
or artifice, in the theater itself, then scenic designer Erik Flatmo's
sumptuous, genteel bedroom manages a similar end by introducing its own
mirroring effect: Opening on to two sides of the Exit's studio stage, it
neatly splits the audience in half and sets each half across from the other.
Watching the play thus means, peripherally at least, watching the audience
watch the play. Claire Calderwood's exquisite costumes and Heather Basarab's
splendid lighting, meanwhile, help lend fatally attractive elegance to
the sisters' ultimate domain.
- This is a play with a lot of mirrors, whether the gilt-framed oval
on the wall, the surface of Madame's shoes, or the eyes of the other (what
Claire calls, looking into her sister-servant's eyes, the "mirror
that beams back my image like a revolting stench;" or what Claire,
playing Madame, calls all servants: "our distorting mirrors
our shame"). Reveling in a ceremony of worshipful hatred, mixing adoration
and insults, Claire portrays an imperious and cruel mistress to Solange's
servant. When we meet the real Madame, however, she treats them more often
with gratingly sweet condescension and fickle interest, as if they were
children one moment, pets the next never more than beloved possessions
(the sisters readily acknowledge between themselves that Madame loves them
roughly on a par with her bidet). There's a sense that mistress and servant
produce one another: The sisters act like children, first of all in that
they play-act when she is away. But Madame clearly play-acts too, and is
full of self-dramatizing devotion to her Monsieur. And in her presence
we see Claire and Solange play-acting once again, this time the part of
the loyal servants.
- When it comes to casting such subtly convoluted roles, you've got to
figure good help is hard to find, but Baer has found it, drawing three
focused, vivid, and supple performances from her cast. Wilson infuses Claire
with a depth and steely intensity that belie her character's youth and
delicate frame, while giving vent to the younger sibling's paranoiac sensitivity
and ultimately more fanatical, ungovernable drive. Stuckert's Solange complements
Claire with an equally layered portrait, shifting from moments of barely
contained, almost ecstatic rage, to the eroticized calm of some inverted
religious passion. Sigrid Sutter, meanwhile, aptly conveys Madame's condescension
with the self-regarding graciousness, pettishness, and unquestioned centrality
of a diva in repose.