Theater review: ‘The Maids’

When Jean Genet’s drama The Maids opened in Paris in 1947, it both fascinated theatergoers and scandalized them. Critics were put off by the play’s violence and by its extravagant style. One critic, so thrown by the characters’ ritualistic, murderous games, called the play “literally nauseating.”

But it’s hard to see such controversy 60-plus years later in Mad Cow Theatre’s production of the Genet classic, which director Christine Robison has staged in such an artificial manner that it barely holds a mirror up to life.

Solange and Claire, the two maids of the title, do spend much of the play engaged in play-acting – one pretending to be their abusive mistress and the other taking the abuse, groveling and writhing in pain and humiliation. But Robison and her three-woman cast don’t distinguish those elaborate rituals from the characters’ everyday existence. The result is a production whose extended melodrama keeps you from feeling anything at all.

Genet, who was born in 1910 and died in 1986, was abandoned as a child, brought up by the state, sent to reform school and early on resolved to take on a life of criminality – as thief, prostitute and beggar – and rebellion against the status quo. Although he denied that his drama The Maids was based on an infamous crime of the 1930s, in which two sisters brutally murdered their employer and her daughter, the fact remains that he saw the play’s characters as examples of the ways the underclass were mistreated and brutalized by the bourgeoisie.

The play opens with an imperious woman reviling and abusing a woman who appears to be her servant. In fact, the two – Claire (Mia Reeves) and Solange (Marion C. Marsh) – are both maids and sisters, and out of self-loathing they take turns playing at mistress and servant while they rehearse a plan to do away with Madame for good.

At Mad Cow, I’m not sure how much of that comes across if you have never seen The Maids before (and I imagine most audience members have not). The exaggerated playing style does give you a hint, from time to time, that all may not be what it seems. But you also get other hints, which may prove to be mere diversion – chiefly that the sisters may be lovers, which may be distracting or gratifying, depending on your proclivities, but has very little to do with the matter at hand.

Of the three actors, the matter-of-fact, down-to-earth Reeves gets most closely at the reality of a woman so beaten down that she hates herself as vehemently as she hates her oppressor. “You and me, we can’t even love each other,” her character says to her sister Solange. “Shit doesn’t love shit.”

But Marsh plays overwrought from beginning to end, so that it’s hard to see that there’s a woman beneath all that overstated drama. And Jamie-Lyn Hawkins, who plays the mistress, also goes for exaggeration: Her Madame is so full of herself, so affected and Cruella de Vil that a stranger on the street might be tempted to cut her down. You may wonder how much more effective the relationships might be if Madame were more banal in her evil and the sisters’ rituals all the more theatrical in contrast.

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, Genet himself wanted the three characters to be played by men. And certainly using men as women would heighten the story’s strangeness, if not its point that oppression causes the lowly to turn upon each other.

Still, Genet’s ideas about class warfare and brutality do not seem as outrageous as they must have seemed in 1947. The theater of the absurd and the theater of cruelty have long since become common on world stages. Without a clearer view of what they’re about, in Mad Cow’s production even Solange and Claire have lost their power to shock.

‘The Maids’

What: Mad Cow Theatre production of Jean Genet drama.
Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 24 (also, 8 p.m. Oct. 20).
Cost: $24 general, $22 seniors, $15 or pay what you wish Oct. 20.
Call: 407-297-8788 Ext. 1.
Online: madcowtheatre.com.

Photo: Mia Reeves, Jamie-Lyn Hawkins (foreground) and Marion C. Marsh. Photo courtesy of Mad Cow Theatre.

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